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What good are elections, anyway?

Elections are terrible mechanisms for holding politicians accountable, but voting is important for democracy anyway.

Frederic Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Election Day is nearly upon us, and it’s time for Americans to once again drink from the fountain of democracy as they enter their polling booths for this semi-regular ritual — or opt not to.

It’s worth pausing to as: What purpose do elections serve? Even a shallow dive into modern political science demonstrates that only Kool-aid flows from the democratic fountain; elections do not do what most people believe they do.

What we think elections do

The conventional way of thinking about elections is that they are a mechanism of accountability. The logic goes like this: Politicians seek to be elected (or reelected) and therefore they need to make their constituents happy. Constituents evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward those who are doing well, and vote against those who are not.

The desire to be reelected, and the ability of voters to hold the elected accountable, is seen as the critical mechanism that makes democracy work.

Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call this the “folk theory” of democracy. We think elections are the mechanism by which citizens select and remove government representatives, giving politicians strong incentives to do right by their constituents.

But elections are not a great mechanism for holding politicians accountable.

The barriers to electoral accountability

Elections are a necessary but flawed system in democracy. There are good reasons to vote and good reasons to hold elections, but “because that’s how we hold representatives accountable” is not one of them. There are at least three big reasons why elections are imperfect mechanisms of accountability: limited agency, limited cognition, and oversensitivity.

Limited agency: “Agency” is the term social scientists use to mean that individuals have the capacity to act on their own. Americans tend to have strong cultural connections to the idea of individual agency.

The American dream is that an individual can work hard (“pull themselves up by their bootstraps”), be recognized as valuable, and earn rewards or status in exchange. Having individual agency is strongly connected to the idea of a meritocracy, where the deserving are granted rewards.

But what if our success is not a function of what we do as individuals, but a function of the position we hold in society’s strata?

Studies show that college students whose families are in the top income quartile are five times as likely to graduate compared to college students whose families are in the bottom quartile. This means graduation rates are not only a matter of grit and hard work, they are also a function of one’s status and position in society.

The attainment of a college degree is, to some extent, a function of broad socioeconomic patterns. The idea that college students’ success is dependent on individual agency is a myth, and the same is true for voting.

We all may think that our choice about whether to vote, and for whom to vote, is a matter of our own individual agency, but it’s not. Despite a strong streak of individualism and fiercely protected individualistic identities, all humans are products of the social systems in which they live.

Social science research by scholars like Meredith Rolfe, Betsy Sinclair, and David Nickerson, shows that your decision to vote, and your decision about how to vote, is a function of the context you live in.

Do the people you live with vote? How will your co-workers vote? Which candidates are people talking about at the gym? Our daily exposures to (or from) politics strongly affects our individual choices about whether and how to participate in politics.

You can continue to think that your political preferences are entirely decisions that you came to all on your own, but you’d be wrong. Your parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, and peers’ political attitudes affect yours. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what makes you human.

But if elections are about individuals holding elected officials accountable, we have to let go of the idea that individuals make political choices that are independent of one another.

So maybe “I,” as an individual, cannot hold someone accountable — but maybe “we” can?

Limited cognition: Since the 1960s, political scientists have understood that all voters (a.k.a. people) have a limited cognitive capacity for processing information about politics. Most people are not highly attuned to political events and use various cognitive shortcuts to help them make rational choices while voting, anyway. Individual people hold conflicting views about politics that they try to rationalize, but people make regular cognitive errors.

For some time, scholars wondered if people were just too dumb to have democracy. Does democracy require citizens to be highly educated, rational, and informed? Not really.

No one defines democracy as a system where all the participants are well-informed. Frankly, given the complexity of issues in today’s world, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything about politics, policy, and government.

Some level of common information, education, logic, and shared facts are essential, but it would be unreasonable to expect democracy to require all people to know everything about all issues and candidates at all times. It’s not only impractical, but our brains just aren’t designed for that type of data storage.

We have cleverly designed all sorts of institutions to help us overcome our cognitive limitations, political parties being the most important of these. Parties are institutions that provide us with immediate and accurate cues about what a candidate or issue is all about. As partisanship has become more essential to our identity, as shown in research by Liliana Mason and others, we can make even quicker judgments about who or what to trust. In some ways, this is incredibly useful and efficient.

Until it’s not. When we hold our party identification so closely that we fail to evaluate any evidence, and begin to see the other side as dangerous, we run into problems with extreme polarization. When party organizations no longer have control of what their party stands for or who it nominates, parties become a liability for democracy, rather than an organizing feature.

Our political group identities are therefore also getting in the way of us using elections to hold politicians accountable.

Oversensitivity: Let’s suppose I’ve found a way to accept and overcome the previous two limitations — I understand that it’s not just me that makes choices about whether to reelect my representative, but it’s people like me who do. I also understand that I may not have all the information, but I trust that I’m reasonably smart and informed, and can get the information I need to discover which candidate is worth electing when the time comes. Now can I believe that elections are a good way to help us hold elected people accountable?

Not really. Elections are fragile things. They are sensitive to weather events, freak occurrences, and what cognitive psychologists call “recency bias,” where we overvalue options we have seen most recently. On Election Day, my vote may be influenced by my general mood, how I feel about how breakfast is settling, or the bad thing I heard about a candidate yesterday.

Essentially, because I have less agency than I like to think — meaning I’m strongly influenced by the people I interact with — and I have less cognitive capacity to handle the deluge of information thrown at me about the election, the chance that I might make my selection in the polling booth based on something whimsical is real.

This is why when former FBI Director James Comey presented his letter about his investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton’s email just a few days before the 2016 election, it may have had an effect on the election outcome.

The choices we make in elections can be complicated and “over-determined” by so many factors that it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that caused us to vote the way we did. The complexity of election decisions is why recency bias can make elections oversensitive to events nearest in time to the vote.

The famous political scientist Morris Fiorina wrote that politicians are held accountable in elections because voters use “retrospective” evaluations of their representatives. But how can our evaluations be genuinely retrospective when our choices are affected by what we heard yesterday, what our spouse said about the candidate, and the truly limited information we have about the candidate?

If voters could be truly retrospective, there is a case to be made for elections to be mechanisms of accountability, but it seems like the evidence for such a mechanism just isn’t there.

If elections aren’t for accountability, what are they for?

Democracy does not depend on our ability to use elections to hold politicians accountable. All sorts of institutional features are making it harder and harder for regular citizens to praise politicians they like, and vote out the ones they don’t. From changes in campaign finance law to changes in the congressional calendar, accountability is not a particular strongpoint in American government these days.

Some will say that elections are about “finding the will of the majority.” But this is another false flag because in any large group of people trying to make a choice about something complicated, there are multiple majorities.

Consider a large class of students trying to order pizza. There are a thousand combinations of pizza toppings and dozens of preferences and priorities among the students. The idea that a single majority exists to support one, and only one, option is absurd.

There will be one majority of students who like pepperoni; another majority that might be made up of some from the first majority, who like ham and pineapple; and another majority, made up of a separate but overlapping group, who like peppers and onions.

Democracy is a pizza order on steroids. The mathematics of combining millions of people’s preferences over hundreds of options (i.e., candidates and policies) means that there is no such thing as a majority will. There are many majorities. The idea that elections are the means by which we find the majority, as if there were only one, is the stuff of fairytales.

So if elections aren’t about accountability and they’re not about finding the will of the majority, what are they for? Here are three possibilities:

1) Elections help us generate community and feel connected to people who are like us. There is nothing more natural in human instinct and behavior than to establish ourselves as a part of some group. We endlessly identify ourselves as parts of groups we value or see as like us. We publicly signal our gender, our team loyalty, our occupation, our income status, and even our political party, to those seeking to figure out how to categorize us.

By participating in elections, we can be a part of a community. We can participate in an event that our neighbors are participating in. We can identify ourselves as part of a group that we value (whether that’s voters, Democrats, Republicans, or people who like donuts on Tuesdays). Elections give us a way to be a part of something, and this is an essential part of being human.

2) Elections help us participate in civic culture. Civic culture includes any activity that goes on in the place where you live that affects how you live. Whether you are skeptical of the civics around you and seek to change them, or you value the civics around you and want to encourage them, the institutions that make up your community are a part of your civics.

Elections are a way to engage with those institutions and participate in key aspects of your well-being. Midterm elections are not one election, but 10,000 local elections held by every community in the country at the same time. This is a powerful opportunity to connect to the people around us.

3) Elections are a means of individual and group expression. The right to express oneself is deeply embedded in American culture. The First Amendment to the Constitution talks about a right to individual speech and expression, and it’s one of the most valued rights Americans have.

When one cannot freely express themselves, they are restricted, restrained, or censored in a way that is antithetical to a free society. Expression comes in many forms, and whether it’s truly a function of individual agency or not, it’s an important component of human experience.

Elections are the key mechanism we have to express ourselves. Even if those feelings are misguided, based on falsehoods, fickle, or fleeting, the opportunity to be counted is strongly valued and has a revered place in America.

This is not enough, you say? Then consider not voting, and everyone you know not voting. Imagine what it would feel like to try to accept the results of an election or policy change in the absence of any opportunity to have expressed a preference. The result would lack authority or legitimacy. Voting does not create legitimacy, but not voting guarantees illegitimacy.

Elections simply cannot do what we ask them to do. Accountability may be possible through some government institutions, and may be somewhat possible through elections, but it is not at all clear that elections are the appropriate way to hold politicians accountable for their actions.

But elections have great value anyway. Like democracy itself, elections are a terrible mechanism that cannot ever hope to achieve its promise. But as Winston Churchill said, the alternatives are all worse. Elections are valuable and important.

Vote because it makes you feel like you’re a part of something. Vote because you were told to. Vote to show you care. Vote to show you’re angry. Vote to show you’re excited. Vote because you think that your vote matters. These are worthy reasons to vote.

It’s okay that elections probably do not provide accountability. There are other ways of holding elected people accountable (if they are operational). So don’t vote because it makes democracy work; vote because you want to live in a democracy, and if you don’t vote, it won’t be one anymore.