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Related subjects: Politics and government

Background Information

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Voting is an important part of the democratic process.

Voting is a method for a group such as a meeting or an electorate to make a decision or express an opinion — often following discussions, debates or election campaigns.

Process of voting

Most forms of democracy discern the will of the people by a common voting procedure:

  • Individual voter registration and qualification,
  • Opening the Election for a set time period,
  • Registration of voters at established voting locations,
  • Distribution of ballots with preset candidates, issues, and choices (including the write-in option in some cases),
  • Selection of preferred choices (often in secret, called a secret ballot),
  • Secure collection of ballots for unbiased counting, and
  • Proclamation of the will of the voters as the will of the people for their government.

Reasons for voting

In a democracy, voting commonly implies election, i.e. a way for an electorate to select among candidates for office. In politics voting is the method by which the electorate of a democracy appoints representatives in its government.

A vote, is an individual's act of voting, by which he or she express support or preference for a certain motion (e.g. a proposed resolution), a certain candidate, or a certain selection of candidates. A secret ballot, the standard way to protect voters' political privacy, generally takes place at a polling station. The act of voting in most countries is voluntary, however some countries, such as Australia, Belgium and Brazil, have compulsory voting systems.

Types of votes

Different voting systems use different types of vote. Suppose that the options in some election are Alice, Bob, Charlie, Daniel, and Emily and they are all vying for the same position.

In a voting system that uses a single vote, the voter can select one of the five that they most approve of. " First past the post" uses single votes. So, a voter might vote for Charlie. This precludes him voting for anyone else.

An improvement on the single vote system is to have run-off elections, or repeat first past the post, however, the winner must win by 50% plus one, called a simple majority. If subsequent votes must be used, often a candidate, the one with the fewest votes or anyone who wants to move their support to another candidate, is removed from the ballot.

In a voting system that uses a multiple vote, the voter can vote for any subset of the alternatives. So, a voter might vote for Alice, Bob, and Charlie, rejecting Daniel and Emily. Approval voting uses such multiple votes.

In a voting system that uses a ranked vote, the voter has to rank the alternatives in order of preference. For example, they might vote for Bob in first place, then Emily, then Alice, then Daniel, and finally Charlie. Many voting systems use ranked votes.

In a voting system that uses a scored vote (or range vote), the voter gives each alternative a number between one and ten (the upper and lower bounds may vary). See range voting.

Some "multiple-winner" systems may have a single vote or one vote per elector per available position. In such a case the elector could might vote for Bob and Charlie on a ballot with two votes. However, if James and Jiggles each receive the most votes (1st and 2nd place plurality), then Jiggles and James

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would obtain the seats. These types of systems can use ranked or unranked voting, and are often used for at-large positions such as on some city councils.

Fair voting

Economist Kenneth Arrow lists five characteristics of a fair voting system. However, Arrow's impossibility theorem shows that it is impossible for any voting system which offers more than three options per question to have all 5 characteristics at the same time.

Casting a vote expresses an implied willingness to participate in a common process with some shared outcome. Those who feel unable to express their limits or boundaries of tolerance in a voting system may be more likely to resist or fight or fail to support decisions made through it (more of an issue with parties or policies). Those who feel unable to express their real preferences may lack all enthusiasm for the choices or for the eventually chosen representative or leader. Any vote balances both kinds of considerations.

One common issue, especially in first-past-the-post systems, is that of the protest vote: one might "waste one's vote" on a minor party to send a signal of strong preference for a candidate or party that cannot win, or of intolerance for the "more mainstream" options. However it is difficult to tell from the vote alone whether one is positively inclined to the minor party or negatively inclined to the major party. Previously Russia offered its electors a " None of the Above" option, so that protest votes could be properly tallied. Other jurisdictions may record the incidence of (apparently deliberately) spoiled ballot papers.

Also, it is often not clear whether the voter really understands how his or her vote is counted in the voting system, especially with the more complex types. This often leads to issues with the results. Ballot design and the use of voting machines have particular importance, given this issue. Optimally participants in a vote should perceive the results, especially of a political vote, as fair. If fairness appears lacking, resistance to the results may lead at best to confusion, at worst to violence and even civil war, in the case of political rivals.

In an effort to make balloting cheaper and more transparent, Brazil introduced electronic voting in all levels of elections, gradually since 1994. By 2002 general elections, all voting in Brazil was cast on electronic system, with paper ballots being used only in last case emergencies (such as black-outs). Argentina followed in 2003 for a gubernatorial election. This pilot test involved 500,000 voters distributed among 20 constituencies in the eastern Argentine province of Buenos Aires. However, concerns over the security of paperless voting machines have caused controversy, particularly in the United States.

Criteria. It may be premature to choose the best method of voting without deciding the criteria by which the methods are to be judged. The criterion most commonly accepted is that the method should choose the candidate or policy that would defeat all others in a series of individual contests. This is what our usual balloting system does, looking only at the voter’s positive choices. Pairwise comparisons is a good implementation of that aim.

Maybe that should not be the sole criterion, however. Another possible goal would be to protect minorities from what has been called the “militant majority.” A town meeting is one implementation of democracy that often does this. Such a meeting would probably not choose the initially most popular candidate if that candidate was totally unacceptable to a significant minority. A candidate would probably be chosen who had slightly fewer supporters but many fewer enemies. A blackball or veto provision also protects minority rights, though at great cost to majority rule.

It may be desirable then that an ideal voting system should consider who people oppose as well as who they support. These are not mirror images of each other. The decision makers have latitudes of acceptance, indifference, and rejection, and these may differ in their widths. Many alternatives may fall in the latitude of indifference - they are neither accepted nor rejected. Avoiding the choice that the most people strongly reject may sometimes be at least as important as choosing the one that they most favour.

Voting and Information

Modern political science has questioned whether average citizens have sufficient political information to cast meaningful votes. A series of studies coming out of the University of Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s argued that voters lack a basic understanding of current issues, the liberal- conservative ideological dimension, and the relative ideological positions of the major parties. Only a handful of sophisticated voters—usually those with education and high levels of political involvement—seemed to understand political debates fully.

Though these studies arose from research in the United States, their implications for democracy are severe. However, these conclusions continue to be contested as current scholarly research debates the Michigan studies' findings. A consensus has begun to emerge that voters do not need the high levels of political information that the Michigan studies expected to find in order to participate fully in politics; instead, voters learn to rely on "information shortcuts"—for example, they look at which politicians and interest groups endorse each side of a proposal to get a feel for whether they ought to support it.

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