Feb 082012

The current popular notion of democracy is something to the effect of “the will of the people is effected through voting.” Though this is a far cry from the original meaning of the word or its various incarnations through history, let’s take it as our working definition. It certainly reflects the basic approach taken in the United States. Though often confounded by the public mind with a vague cultural notion of freedom, it only conforms to this when taken together with certain other principles — such as explicit protections of individual liberties.

This aside, let us consider the components necessary for democracy. To do so, we must make some supposition regarding the ability of an individual voter to render a decision. We assume that every voting individual, regardless of aptitude, is capable of determining their purpose in voting. We say “purpose” rather than “criterion” because we refer to a moral choice, what they hope to achieve by voting. This is far more basic and reliable than any specific set of issues or criteria. A person knows their value system, even if they can not or do not have the means of accurately expressing it. The desires to improve the country, foster religious tenets, create a certain type of society, support the weak, advance one’s own interest, protect a specific right, or promote cultural development cannot easily be manipulated or instilled. While it is possible to create a sense of urgency or attach specific issues or criteria to these values, one’s purpose itself is a reflection of that individual’s view of society and their relationship with it. To meaningfully participate in the democratic process, an individual must translate this purpose into particular votes in particular elections. Note that a purpose may embody a plurality of ideals rather than any specific one (such as in the examples above).

It is the function of democracy to proportionately reflect in our governance and society the individual purposes of the citizenry. A number of components are involved, any of whose absence undermines its ability to do so. While the consequent process may retain all the trappings of a democracy, it would not truly function as one. Though it could be argued that such imperfection is natural and speaks to the shortcomings of the participants rather than a failing of the institution itself, such a claim is misguided. Regardless of cause, if the people’s will is not accurately reflected then the society does not conform to our popular notion of a democracy. Whether another system would perform better is beyond our present consideration. We simply list certain key requirements for a democracy to function as we believe it should, and allow the reader to decide the extent to which our present society satisfies them.

Note that a particular government need not directly represents the interest of every citizen, but its formation and maintenance must meaningfully do so. In some loose sense this means that (1) the effect of a citizen is independent of who that citizen is, and (2) the opinion of a majority of citizens is reflected in the actions of the government. These are neither precise requirements nor ones satisfied in practice, particularly in representative democracies. However they reflect our vague cultural concept of democracy.

The following are the major components necessary for a democracy to function as we believe it should.


Once a voter has decided upon a set of positions that reflect their purpose, they must have a means of voting accordingly. There must be sufficient choice to allow an individual to embody those positions in their vote. Furthermore, the choice must be real. Marginal candidates with no chance of winning may be useful for registering an opinion, but they do not offer true participation in the election. If there are only two major candidates then the voter’s entire purpose must be reduced to a binary decision. Only if it happens to be reflected in one of the choices at hand would their view be expressible.

If there are two major candidates and they differ only on a few issues that are of no consequence to a particular individual, then that person cannot express his purpose by voting. For example if a voter feels very strongly about issue X, and both major candidates have the same opposing position on that issue, then he cannot make his will known in that election. It may be argued that the presence of small candidates serves exactly this purpose and that if sentiment is strong enough one could prevail. This is not born out by history. In a two party system, a voter is reduced to a binary choice between two bundled sets of positions. As a more extreme example, suppose there are several major issues and the candidates agree on one of them. Even if every single person in the country holds the opposite position on that issue, their will still cannot be effected through that election. If there were no other important issues, then one or the other candidate surely would take the popular position — or a third party candidate would do so and prevail. However in the presence of other issues, this need not be the case.

Finally, there must be some reason to believe that the actions of a candidate once elected will reflect their proclaimed positions. Otherwise, it will be years before the voter can penalize them. Without such an assurance — and history certainly does not offer it — a nominal choice may not be a real one. The people then acts the part of a general who cannot move his troops, however much he may threaten or cajole them.


A well-intentioned individual must have a way of locating and obtaining information whose accuracy is not in question or, if uncertain in nature, is suitably qualified. Voters must have access to accurate and sufficient information. In order to translate their purpose into a vote, an individual must be able to determine the choices available and what they actually entail. Moreover, he must be able to determine the relative importance of different issues in effecting his purpose. Fear mongering, inaccurate statistics, and general misinformation could lead him to believe that a particular issue ‘X’ is of greater import than it truly is. Instead of focusing on other issues ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ which are more germaine to his purpose, he may believe that dealing with issue ‘X’ is the most important step toward it. Similarly, if the views of candidates are obfuscated or misrepresented or the significance of events is disproportionately represented, an accurate translation of his purpose into a vote may be denied a person. Even a perfectly rational and capable voter cannot make a suitable decision in the absence of information or in the presence of inaccurate information. This said, not every vehicle should be expected to provide such information. If a person prefers to listen to a news station that reports with a particular bias, that is not the fault of the information provider — unless it does so subtly and pretends otherwise.


A voter must have the intelligence, critical reasoning, motivation, and general wherewithal to seek out accurate information, detect propaganda or advertising, and make an informed decision. Their perceived interest must coincide with their true interest, and their purpose be accurately represented in the choice they make. It may seem that we are advocating the disenfrachisement of a segment of the population, individuals who — while failing to meet some high standard — have valid purposes of their own which they too have the right to express. This is not the case, nor is our standard artificial. We are merely identifying a necessary ingredient, not endorsing a particular path of action. Moreover, the argument that they would be deprived of a right is a specious one. Such individuals \emph{are} disenfranchised, whether or not they physically vote. They lack the ability to accurately express their purpose, and easily are misled, confused, or manipulated. At best they introduce noise, at worst their votes may systematically be exploited. A blind person may have a valid destination, but they cannot drive there.


Voters must be willing and able to participate. They cannot be blocked by bureaucratic, economic, legal, or practical obstacles — especially in a way that introduces a selection bias. Their votes must be accurately tallied and their decision implemented.


Not only must the structure of the democratic process treat all voters equally, their de facto influence must be equal. Depending on the nature of the voting system, certain participants may have no real influence even if the system as a whole treats them symmetrically. A simple example would be a nation consisting of four states with blocks of 3, 3, 2, and 1 votes, where each block must vote as a unit. Regardless of the pattern of voting, citizens in the state with a single vote can never affect the outcome. If that vote is flipped, the majority always remains unchanged. This particular topic is addressed in another paper.

There certainly are many other technical and procedural requirements. However those listed above are critical components that directly determine a voter’s ability to express their will through the democratic process. In their absence, voters could be thwarted, manipulated, misled, or confused. The purpose of democracy isn’t to tally votes, but to register the will of the people. Without the choice and tools to express this will, the people can have nothing meaningful to register.