Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I'm currently reading Gavin Esler's 1997 book, The United States of Anger which brilliantly records the maelstrom of forces building up in that country (and which we now know led to George W Bush and all he stands for). I was particularly struck by a passage about the 1996 general election:

"Outside a polling station in Arlington, Virginia, voters were waiting in a 200-yard-long line to vote... The line moved so slowly everyone was forced to wait for more than an hour to vote, on a workday, in a society which values hard work above all.

... The Arlington crowd was patient and polite, many voters reading books brought for the occasion. A family friend said she waited for more than an hour and then left without voting because she had to pick up her children. Others told of horrible problems working through the entire gargantuan ballot paper, spending twenty minutes in the voting booth, in some areas electing everyone from the president and senator to members of Congress, governors, local representatives, county commissioners, sheriffs, judges and dogcatchers."

Turnout in that 1996 election was just 48% - imagine what would have happened if it had reached French levels of over 85%+.

Esler concludes that the Americans suffer from over-democracy and are over-governed. Paradoxically making voters spend so much time electing so many officials weakens democracy, because some voters can't afford the many hours it takes to vote, and some would-be politicians can't afford the many months they must devote just to fund-raising in order to be heard. Thus potential voters and potential politicians drop out of the system, leaving it in the hands of the activists and extremists.

This is an important point, because from time to time people here think, if only we could have referendums on everything, if only we could have primaries, if only we could elect sheriffs etc, life in Britain would improve. They imagine that voters will be so enthusiastic about all the extra voting that voter-participation would rise, when the evidence from America shows it will probably go down.

In most of England you elect your council, you elect your MEP and you elect your government (who double as your representative in the Council of Ministers), and you delegate to them the power to appoint other officials, and you are in and out of the polling station in five minutes. It's a good system. Participating in democracy doesn't cost a lot of time, and democracy doesn't cost too much money either (compared to the Americans), which means we have money to spend on other things.

It's no accident that when the Berlin wall fell, the fledgling eastern european countries followed in the footsteps of the ex-colonial countries and opted for the type of parliamentary democracies you see across Europe (and of course the parliamentary system was invented in Britain). The US constitutional experts who had hot-footed east hoping to persuade the newbies to copy the American system (and earn fat fees setting it up), were bitterly disappointed. But if they'd thought for a moment, they'd have realised that only daft people would willingly choose a system like the American one.

This November the US turnout will be much higher than in previous years - but only because a toxic combination of Hurricane Katrina, economic woes and Iraq has made Americans desperate. People are so desperate that some will willingly queue for the entire day to vote and get their new saviour into office. I only hope that the polling officials lay out enough polling booths to accomodate them, else we'll have the tragedy of citizens willing to do their bit and the system letting them down.

1 comment:

jams o donnell said...

I've never understood the need to elect dogcatchers. There are some jobs that really should be appointed.