The introduction of weighted votes is a simple yet powerful idea that may help to lift the blanket of apathy that is currently smothering many democratic nations. Once this happens, conditions will be in place for good – rather than popular – political decisions to take root.
By Stefan Hansen
“Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men.”
– J. J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III
Democracy, which was originally dreamed up somewhere in Athens, is a beautiful idea. There is good reason why it has survived for more than two and a half millennia. During most of this period, however, there have been problems with the actual implementation of the democratic idea. However, thanks to new technology, conditions are now in place to bring this implementation one step closer to the ideal through a mechanism I like to call “weighted democracy”. It is a simple idea which, in principle, involves only a minor adjustment in relation to the current practice. In other words, I am not talking about turning out the guard, nor proposing revolution. My suggestion is more modest: let us work together to take democracy to the next logical level, in an evolutionary manner.
The two cornerstones of democracy
Democracy has – or should have – two cornerstones in the form of something that the individual citizen provides, and something that the citizen receives in return. What the citizen gives is not his/her vote, but his/her involvement in society and the political debate. In return for this commitment, the citizen receives the right to vote. It would make sense, and it would be magnificent, if this was the way things worked. Unfortunately, it rarely does, no matter what we might think. The myth of the rational voter is alive and well, even though the rational voter accounts for perhaps only a tiny proportion of the population.
It is only human for us to have forgotten that we have to give something to earn the right to receive. But human or not, it is not particularly fortunate. Our “forgetfulness” has quite simply amputated the democratic idea and left us with a form of implementation which, in the long term, could just as well lead us to the brink of disaster as to enlightenment. To carry on doing what we are doing – i.e. insisting on our right to vote without committing to the political debate – is like sticking our hands in our pockets and turning away with a cheeky “no, I don’t want to” when our grandmother is giving us a stern talking to on the theme of “you have to make an effort if you want something in return”.
Weighted democracy will make gran’s good advice relevant once more and – with a bit of luck – encourage more people to take their hands out of their pockets. And as I mentioned above, the idea is quite simple. The way things are now, everyone over the age of majority is entitled to vote, irrespective of how much, or how little, they understand about politics. And no matter how much we would love to believe in the idea that everyone is equal, and that everyone understands politics, these assumptions are quite simply wrong. Some people read, think and write about politics all day long, others are – for one reason or another – politically ignorant and/or illiterate. Some people have actively chosen to be in this state, and some even take pride in knowing as little as possible about what is happening in the political arena. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but do not let these people vote. Or more specifically, let them vote but do not count their votes. Does this seem unreasonable? Well it isn’t; and now, fortunately, there is a way to apply it in practice.
Before long, we will be using electronic voting cards and making our choice via options on a touchscreen. While we do so, it would be appropriate to have us answer a number of political questions – objective, factual questions rather than questions concerning beliefs and convictions. Once we have answered these questions, our votes will be weighted in relation to the number of correct answers we gave. If we answer all the questions correctly, our vote will count for one whole vote, as it does today. If, however, we answer correctly to only three out of ten questions, our vote will be worth three-tenths of a whole vote. In this way, votes from citizens who have kept up with the political debate will be weighted more heavily than votes from citizens who – for one reason or another – gave incorrect answers to the majority of the questions. This will help create a balance between what we have given and what we receive. As such, we will have come a step closer to ideal democracy – thanks to a relatively simple solution.
Out with the age of majority – in with voting competence
To those people who object that it is wrong in principle to attach more importance to some votes than to others, I can only say that we already do so! All citizens under the legal age of majority are given no voice whatsoever. There is a good and obvious reason for this: we do not want people with no idea of what politics entails to have any influence on political elections. Applying a minimum age to voting rights is a – partially successful – attempt to filter the ignorant and incompetent out of the voting process. Of course, the problem with this solution is that it also filters out well-informed and highly committed people. What is even worse is that it allows adults with no interest at all in politics to vote, and then it attaches the same weight to their votes as to those of everyone else.
By introducing weighted democracy, we have the opportunity to lower or even eliminate the age of majority, and allow everyone, including teenagers, to vote. Those teenagers who keep up with the political debate and can therefore answer all – or most of – the “election questions” will have their votes weighted highly, whereas those teenagers who would rather play football and pursue members of the opposite sex would be unlikely to answer many of the questions correctly. The same applies to the politically committed adults and the adult skirt-chasers. What is really beautiful about this idea is that everything is up to the individual, and there is no coercion at all. Commitment is a free choice, just as it is today. The only difference is that commitment is rewarded with political influence.
It is, of course, important to have clear guidelines about what kind of questions voters are to be asked. The whole idea will crumble if there are no specific and unambiguous answers. Questions about beliefs and convictions, on which even the politicians themselves cannot agree, must be banned. All questions must be factual. It should be possible to have a “pool” of hundreds of relevant questions, and then to present each voter with a random selection so as to eliminate the risk of voters passing on the answers to others.
One objection to this idea is that it might be possible to write the election questions in such a way as to make them easier for certain voters – conservatives or socialists, for example – to answer. I must say I doubt whether it is possible to write questions that appeal to a specific political group of voters, but there is a very simple solution to this potential problem. Let the parties themselves write the questions. If they do so, and if it is possible to write questions that are easier for their followers to answer, then the conditions will be equal for everyone and any bias will cancel itself out.
Another objection is that some questions can be harder to answer than others, and that an occasional ambiguous question might appear. I will not deny that both these objections are justified, but it does not alter the fact that implementing weighted democracy would raise the democratic process to a higher level than its current state. The fact that a couple of dubious questions might sneak through the filter does not mean that the whole idea is worthless. It simply means that the idea is not perfect – but then again, no-one in their right mind would claim that the present system is perfect, either. Even though the new idea may not be the holy grail of democracy, it is certainly a pragmatic model and one that is much better than the current one. And that is what matters.
When we say no to democracy
Imagine that you have begun to experience some strange symptoms every morning. You feel ill, dizzy and so on, and the condition is not going away. So what do you do? You call your doctor. You call the expert. Have you ever considered describing your symptoms to your friends instead, and then letting them vote on what medicine you should pour down your throat? I doubt it. Fortunately. Fortunately, you know that democracy is not applicable in this situation. The same applies when your car will not start on a cold winter morning, no matter what you do. So again, you call your mechanic, the expert. You choose the dictator of the internal combustion engine rather than the democratic will of your friends. This is a good thing, because in some cases the democratic process is simply not appropriate. In many cases, it is better to consult with a single expert than with a thousand laymen. Don’t you think the same might apply to running a country? Would it not be better for everyone to place political responsibility in the hands of politically committed and motivated people? It seems to be an advantageous approach, and this is precisely what weighted democracy would offer to a much greater extent than current democracy. This method sorts the sheep from the goats – and grades the goats on a scale of 0 to 1.
Stefan Hansen is a self-taught thinker. At present, he is devoting his attention to possible solutions to the societal problems of the future, with a view to writing a collection of essays about the issue. One of the cornerstones of this collection is the idea of the weighted democracy of the future.