The Paradox of Democracy

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The central tenet of democracy is the idea of the vote. And there is an interesting paradox to voting.

You often hear people say that they don't bother to vote because, after all, my one vote doesn't matter.

There is a sense in which this is true. There has never been a candidate for President who has won or lost by a single popular vote. While I do not have records of all the elections for governor or senator or other high offices, I am sure that elections for these offices won or lost by a single vote are extremely rare.

But here's the paradox: If one person says to himself, "My vote doesn't matter, if I don't bother to vote, it won't make any difference", he's probably right. But if a million people say that, combined, they're totally wrong.

Sure, few candidates win or lose by one vote. But a million votes required a million individual people to cast them. So even if a candidate wins by a landslide, your one vote was part of that landslide, and you did make a difference.

That said, there are some votes that are very, very close.

This is especially true in local elections, where there are fewer voters. A few years ago I was watching elections return on television, and quite late in the evening, when something like 95% of the votes were in, there was a bond issue in a town in our area that was passing by 2 to 1. I don't mean, twice as many people voting for it as against it. I mean, 2 people had voted for it, and 1 person had voted against it.

So okay, that was a small town.

Let's take a bigger race, the state legislature.

In 1994 in Ohio, there was a race between incumbent Katherine Walsh and challenger William Taylor.

This race was particularly interesting to people concerned about the abortion issue, because Ms Walsh was one of the two or three leading pro-abortion advocates in the state legislature, while Mr Taylor was pro-life. (Of course, even if you are not particularly interested in abortion, the point of this little story is still applicable -- it could happen in any race, no matter what the issues are.)

When the polls closed on election day, Ms Walsh had beaten Mr Taylor by just twenty-six votes, out of almost 37,000 votes cast. There was much hand-wringing among pro-lifers. If just twenty-seven more pro-lifers had bothered to go to the polls, they could have turned the election. Indeed, if just fourteen people who voted for Walsh had voted for Taylor instead, he would have won. Considering how many voters go the polls with no clear idea of who the candidates are and what they stand for, one person handing out a hundred flyers on a street corner might very well have changed fourteen votes.

But the initial count did not include absentee ballots. When these were added in, Mr Taylor had won. By nine votes. Now the pro-aborts are surely doing the hand-wringing. If just five people had changed their votes, Ms Walsh would have won. There was a point when I was a boy when he had five registered voters in our family (two parents, two kids in college, and one finishing high school) -- one family could have turned that election! And surely one person making phone calls, handing out flyers, or just giving some money so that one more ad could be placed on the radio or in the newspaper, could have made the difference.

And by the way, Mr Taylor's presence in the Ohio House meant that, by at least one analyst's count, there were then 51 pro-lifers in the 99-seat legislature -- just one more than needed to make a majority. There were a number of squeeker votes that term. Mr Taylor might well have made the difference between certain bills passing or failing. Which means that just five people in his district could have changed the outcome of legislation for the entire state.


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Posted 14 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1996 by Ohio Right to Life.
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