The problem with democracy
Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Sounds familiar? This quote, attributed to the seasoned politician Sir Churchill, sounds true today more than ever, given that nowadays there are so many countries on this planet that call themselves democratic. And yet one must be blind not to notice huge problems in almost any single one of them. Rampant corruption, demagogues in power, erosion of law and order, growing inequality and good old misgovernment can be seen from the space, some times literally. Is there a common denominator here at play?
From Venezuela to Russia via United States and Spain, India and Egypt, France and even the motherland of the modern parliamentary system, Great Britain, we see very strange trends. Populists win elections by making exaggerated, but all so sweet promises, which are demonstratively unachievable for anyone who cares to research the subject. Unfortunately, the majority of the electorate is either too lazy, too busy or, to say it bluntly, too dumb, to do the legwork and to check the claims of the candidates. At times, people don't seem to care at all. And when the electorate is both ignorant and apathetic, the wily political operators are more than happy to do as they please in the shadows. In short, the present system of universal suffrage in its present form is flawed. One person one vote clearly leads to stupid decisions and therefore it must go.
This observation is not original. Throughout the history different barriers were erected on the path to the franchise. Property ownership, racial pedigree, membership in particular organizations and specific set of reproductive organs are the most common examples. We have seen the often disastrous results to which eventually such limits on voting participation lead their societies. One thing in common for some of those old restrictions was their permanence,. For example, if you happen to be a woman, you will never be eligible to vote, no matter what else might happen in your life. Same goes with race. Wealth or, say, religious affiliations are more transient, but still, they don't necessarily imply any understanding of the political necessities of the day and age and at best carry some ingrained personal agenda.
It is time to propose a new, practical and just system, that will combine good aspects of the current one, while introducing some reasonable limits, checks and balances.
The modest proposal
The essence of my proposal is simple. No, it has nothing to do with the Irish children. Instead, the universal suffrage system remains in place, that is, everyone above certain age potentially has the right to vote. However, this right is not automatic, but rather conditional. It does not depend on one's wealth or social status, or the amount of melatonin in their skin or their views on the problems of cosmology. Instead, their eligibility to vote depends on their knowledge of the system and the issues they are going to vote on. I.e. in order to cast a vote, the citizen will have to prove that he/she actually understands what are the problems, facing the future government and what are possible consequences of different actions and inactions. To do that, the future voters will have to pass an exam prior to the elections on knowledge of the programs of the participating parties/candidates. It important to stress - the exam will check how familiar the person is with the platforms, but not whether he/she agrees with them. Upon passing the exam, the person then is free to cast the vote whichever way his/her heart, or, hopefully, brain, tells him/her to. The result - better informed voters will make better decisions.
There are lots of technical problems with this proposal. For example, who will write the exam questions and how exactly to conduct them in a streamlined, honest and fair manner? The logistics will be non-trivial. It is clear, that such exams will be only feasible in countries with developed infrastructure and with relatively low levels of corruption to begin with, because otherwise the system will be either unreliable or will become abused very quickly.
Another problem for elections with high number of candidates. What do we do when there are many participating organizations with different platforms. I am told that in Germany 20–40 parties taking part in a single election is not an unheard of scenario. In Israel, a country with the total population less than that of London, there are probably 30 parties in the current parliament, thanks to the low electoral barrier. It is unrealistic to expect that a person will be able to study such volumes of information, especially when some of the parties are created purely for the sake of political hooliganism. I am confident, that this issue and many others could resolved pragmatically and democratically.
It is clear, that number of voters in elections running under such a system will fall. Some will not be able to pass the exam, being either illiterate or having extremely short attention span. Some won't be bothered to take it, because they don’t care. Yet others will be too busy to educate themselves. One thing in common among all these groups - they will have had very little knowledge of the problems at hand when going to vote, so it is not a bad thing that they are excluded. And their removal from the voting public is not based on some financial predicament or social/racial/gender prejudice, it is a clear consequence of their inability or lack of desire to learn about the things they are to vote on. It is only natural, actually, that they shouldn't be allowed to vote. And they can become enfranchised at any moment, by learning about the issues, passing the exam and becoming eligible voters once more.
This suggestion, by the way, makes the issue of young voters much more palatable. During the referendum for independence in Scotland, 16 and 17 years old citizens were allowed to vote as well, although the usual minimal eligible age for voting in the UK is 18. This was controversial, because many would argue that at such age young people might not be very responsible. If, however, we allow the examination prior to voting, the responsible and serious sections of the younger voters will have a chance to prove their worth and proudly will be able to take part in elections. Those who don't care or are too lazy to even educate themselves about the issues on the political agenda will correctly stay home and won't affect the outcome.
Obstacles on the path to victory
Let us look at a few obstacles on the path to implementing this proposal that are obvious even now. First, let's consider the multi-platform problem I mentioned earlier. In the USA and the UK people are used to closely run competitions between two main parties, with an occasional third, completely ignorable player throwing their hat into the ring. In other places, however, the political space is quite crowded. Many parties and candidates campaign for the votes, and many of them have a reasonable chance of winning, so we can't just ignore them. What to do? How do we run voters' examination in such an environment? It would be completely unreasonable and against the whole point of the proposed change to ask the citizens to study 35 platforms! One simple approach is to require the examinees to take a pick. For example, choose the current governing party, if there is one (choose any in case of a multi-party coalition). Next, choose any other one or two parties as well, from the opposition, so to speak. So the voter selects 2-3 platforms to study - and in this will be the scope of her exam. At the polling station the voter casts the ballot for any candidate at all, of course, regardless whether the platform was one of those on the exam paper or not.
Low literacy will be an insurmountable obstacle for this proposal. It is very hard for people to become well informed about the political situation if they can't read. Also, in societies with low levels of literacy and education the whole infrastructure needed to organise and run the voters' exams tends to be absent. Add substantial corruption to the pot and you get a state of no go.
Some people would choose to attack this proposal from the "woke" angle. They would argue, that, for example, oppressed minorities will have much harder time learning for and passing the voters' exams, as opposed to the, presumably, oppressing majority. This is another example of strange condescension I detect in some political groups. On one hand they insist that minorities are no worse than the majorities and should be treated equally. This does seem fair and reasonable. On the other hand they keep making various assumptions about their target groups that tend to show them weak and incompetent. Maybe the intention here is to force these minorities to keep relying on these political operators, or maybe these activists are themselves not very logical. Either way, I am pretty confident, that in countries with reasonably high levels of literacy overall even minorities will be quite capable to take part in the new franchise. It might even encourage them to be more active in order to make their voices heard and their votes count.
To some up, below are some cons and pros of the proposed system:
- The universal suffrage is retained. Everyone has, potentially, the right to vote, regardless of their gender, religion, age (above certain minimum), race, sexual orientation, social status, financial standing and so on
- Quality of political discourse will increase - it will be in the candidates' and parties' own self interest to make their message as clear as possible, because their potential supporters will be asked about it
- The voters, that actually take part in elections, will be much better informed about what they are voting on. They will be in a position to make a better informed choice. They will also be more attentive to how the politicians fulfil their promises once elected, because, well, they studied these promises in advance and will be able to monitor their execution
- Irresponsible people, those who have a passive social position, who don't care about the future of the society, will be automatically excluded from voting, because they won't be able to pass the exam or won't have any desire to do so. They will always have the chance to change their approach and take part in the process
- Such system requires a relatively well developed society with good logistics, low levels of corruption and high levels of literacy. It is not suitable for every country
- Examination system will inevitably cause higher expenses. I think that by itself it is not a problem, since better governance will repay this money many times over
- Higher load on the voters themselves, because they will have to prepare and then take these exams. This is inherent in the system, so there is no way around it. However, in our digital world most of the preparation and, possibly, examination, can be done remotely via the Internet, on voters' mobiles. Of course, citizens that invest more of their time into understanding the issues at stake and learning about different political platforms will feel more involved which once again will lead to better government