Monday, November 12, 2012

Bayes Theorem and the Sad Truth about Political Participation

In one of my grad courses in Political Science the subject turned to citizen participation in the political process, more specifically the issue of voter turnout. The professor introduced us to a mathematical concept known as Bayes Theorem. Now without going into details of “the math,” the Theorem illuminates the true reality of voter turnout. Here is how it goes: 70% of Americans over the age of 18 are registered to vote. In a typical presidential election, let’s say that turnout is 60%. So now we are down to 42% of Americans 18 or over actually voting. Of that 42%, let’s say that 52% voted for the victor, such as what happened in the election last week. What this means is that, in reality, the President of the United States was actually elected by 22% of the voting age population!! That is one in 5 Americans actually voting for our leader.

Now if you think about off year elections, where voter turnout is oftentimes well under 30%, what this reveals is that our political leaders are actually being voted into office by a ridiculously small number of American citizens. For a nation that hails itself as the beacon of democracy, as the model for the world, this is an absolute embarrassment.

Unless something is done to broaden political participation, I do not see how our politicians can honestly say that they are representing the will of the people. If it was the case that those who don’t register to vote, and those who don’t turn out to vote, choose to do so, I would have to concede that it is their own fault if policies are in place that they don’t like. But research indicates that there are a variety of reasons why people are not registered to vote, and a variety of reasons why people don’t actually turn out to vote.

It is incumbent on our leaders to make a sincere, proactive effort to broaden political participation in the United States. The problem, and this is a killer, is that these elected officials were put in power with the current reality, and so there is little interest by these leaders in increasing participation. Unless organized pressure is brought to bear on our political leaders, progress in this matter will be slow, subject to enormous resistance, and inevitably unsuccessful.

For those like me that believe in true participatory democracy, with true participation by a preponderance of the citizenry, we can only hope that some influential voice will step forward to shame and embarrass our political leaders into reforming the system. Who that person might be is anyone’s guess!

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