America holds more elections than any other democracy. The reason is federalism. Because of decentralization there are more offices for the electorate to fill and thus more elections. Of course, the elections that receive the most attention and the largest voter turnout are federal elections, particularly presidential elections.

But there are two perplexing issues that force us ask why we should vote at all. The first points out that since individual votes are not decisive, it might be irrational to vote. The second shows that if voters have a sufficient number of choices there is no electoral procedure that can accurately establish the public’s preferences. In short, this position contends that no voting system is fair.

In political science a school known as “rational choice” argues that it is a waste of time to vote. These scholars proved mathematically and by experience that any single vote is unlikely to be decisive in any election. That makes voting, in their view, irrational and leads to the disturbing conclusion that your vote does not in fact count. The chances of your vote being decisive go down as the prominence of the election goes up. So more people vote in elections where their vote is least significant. That makes voting particularly irrational in presidential elections. Of course, this school of thought has have a very narrow definition of rationality. Rationality, in their view, is just maximizing your economic well-being. Since your vote is not decisive, you really do not influence who holds office or the laws passed by office holders. If your vote was decisive, it would make sense to vote since you could determine policies that would improve your well-being. But instead when you vote you are spending your resources—time, effort, money for gas—on an activity with no personal benefit. This criticism, however, depends on most people not believing it. Paradoxically if everyone behaved the way rational choice scholars recommend, voting would become more rational since your vote would be the only one and therefore the decisive one.

Does this mean that Americans are in fact in the grip of a deep irrational psychosis when they vote?

It would surely be odd if the most prosperous nation on Earth were filled with people incapable of determining their interests. Undoubtedly for many the reason is a sense of civic duty. Self-government means selecting those who wield power on our behalf. Even if our participation has little individual influence, we know that living in a free, self-governing society is a profound gift that others have died to create and preserve. Of course, by the standards of rational choice dying for your country could count as irrational too. Even if an individual vote does not count, it does contribute to shaping public opinion, which is an incredibly powerful force in a democracy.

The second and potentially more troubling question about voting is whether any voting system can be both fair and actually determine what the public wants.

At the core of the American republic is the principle of consent of the governed, or as Alexander Hamilton put it, “Here, sir, the people govern” (Alexander Hamilton “Remarks on the U.S. House of Representatives, at the New York state convention on the adoption of the Federal Constitution,” July 27, 1788). That presumes that we can identify what the people want and our primary mechanism for this is through elections that indicate voter preferences. But a problem emerges from the fact that there is no system of voting that is both fair and accurately reflects the public’s wishes. This is known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, named after the economist Kenneth Arrow. While Arrow proved the theorem mathematically, the logic of the proof is easy to grasp and can be seen just by considering presidential elections. For example, in the 1992 election Bill Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote while George Bush received 38 percent and Ross Perot 19 percent. What if the Perot voters preferred Bush over Clinton and would have voted for him if Perot had not run? Bush would have won with 57 percent of the vote. While it is extremely unlikely that they all would have preferred Bush there is in fact evidence that Perot’s candidacy cost Bush the election. Regardless, the election shows that the third most popular candidate could have won the election. And the problem is not solved if you only have two competitive candidates. Undoubtedly there were many Republicans and Democrats who had other candidates they would have preferred to vote for but who lost their party’s nomination or did not run at all. While this example shows the problem of plurality system, Arrow showed that it afflicts all voting systems. The conclusion is that there is no perfect method of voting and thus no way to truly know the public’s preferences. Because nothing works unless it is perfect.

American voters doing their civic duty at the polls.

Fortunately this problem is not catastrophic for the American political system. In fact, the Founders were well aware of the problems with various voting systems. While they believed in consent of the governed, they were also deeply afraid of majority tyranny.

The goal of the Constitution, as Madison said, was to “refine and enlarge the public views” not simply capitulate to every whim of the public (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1788).

And public opinion can be ephemeral. What the public initially wants might not be what it would want after sober reflection. And just because the majority wants something in no guarantee that what it wants is appropriate. If five muggers take a vote before robbing you, their theft is not made legitimate by the fact that at least three of them voted to unburden you of your possessions. In the same way, if the public voted to deny your right to freedom of speech, the fact that they voted does not make it less unconstitutional. The Constitution’s complex institutional arrangements are designed to slow down the legislative process so that laws cannot be passed with undue haste and without deliberation. Thus the Constitution itself seems to recognize that there is no such thing as truly knowing exactly what the public wants at any given moment. The United States complex legislative process is the best method for determining the public interest since it slows down decision making and forces deliberation.

Even though there is no perfect system for determining public opinion, there is no doubt that public opinion wields immense authority in a democratic republic. Or perhaps more accurately those who can to speak on its behalf and can shape it wield immense authority. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who best explained the reason for the astonishing power of public opinion in a democratic age. Because everyone is the political equal of everyone else in a democratic republic, no single person’s opinion is considered better than anyone else’s. However, because we are equal we assume that we all have the same ability to reason. This leads us to conclude that whatever the majority thinks has the balance of reason on its side. Reliance on public opinion is then exacerbated by our tendency to retreat into our own private lives rather than engaging with other fellow citizens. But as this impulse towards privatism increases, individuals look even more to what the public says to shape our opinions. In the end, public opinion exercises a kind despotic authority.

“In America,” Tocqueville explains, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dare to leave them…he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused to him, even glory” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835).

Making Tocqueville’s analysis all the more prescient was that he made it before the advent of public opinion polling. With polling all of the problems he identified have been exacerbated. Mass communication, particularly the telephone, made it possible to ask large numbers of Americans their attitudes on a range of political questions, but polling also created its own problems. Since public opinion exercises such power, there are incentives to create polls that show that the public supports the position of the person doing the polling. And polls can be easily manipulated to generate results rather than accurately measure opinion. That is why it is crucial to always be skeptical of opinion polls at least until examining the questions used by the pollsters. Leading questions, ambiguous questions, double-barreled questions can all distort results. Push-polls, which are polls filled with leading questions, are one tried and true method of fraudulent pollsters.

One must even be careful about the order in which questions are asked. Scholars have shown that switching the question order can lead to dramatically different results because prior questions can prime those being polled to favor one response over another in subsequent questions.

But perhaps most troubling is that the public is often profoundly uninformed about important political questions. For decades scholars have found that individuals often give completely different answers to the same question with no discernible reason why. The best explanation for this is that the public is often rationally ignorant about important issues. Rational ignorance means that individuals recognize the cost of obtaining information exceeds the benefit. It does not mean that Americans are stupid. Instead, they lead busy lives and know that their ability to shape political events is limited. They devote their scarce resources to things that immediately affect them. While rational ignorance makes the randomness of public opinion polls explicable, it does nothing to ameliorate the troubling conclusion that we often base our own opinions and that government officials base their decisions on measures of public opinion that do not in fact measure public opinion at all.

;">The instability of public opinion raises the unsettling thought that public opinion can be shaped. This can make public opinion a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where if you can make something perceived to be true you can make it true. That also implies that the media has extraordinary power to manipulate public opinion. The media is most responsible for disseminating political information and shaping opinion. Elite institutions such as the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal decide what stories the public hears and give their own interpretation of what those stories mean. Those choices then shape the choices of other media outlets who take their cues from prestigious national media organizations. This makes having a range of media sources with a range of political perspectives all the more important. Without diversity among media organizations, the groupthink of a few shapes the opinions of the many.

As with the other issues discussed in this section, the problems with accurately measuring public opinion point to the wisdom of the American Founders who did not want public opinion to simply be accepted and acted upon. To protect individual rights, particularly those of political minorities, opinion needed to be filtered through representative institutions which themselves would be divided and checked by each other. The deliberative process created by the Constitution would help tutor public opinion rather than obsequiously cater to it. Additionally, the decentralization of power created by federalism allows for a more accurate approximation of the public interest on many divisive questions. Trying to gauge “national” opinion on local questions is both impossible and counterproductive. Allowing states and local governments to decide policy on state and local questions means that those closest to the problem to voice their opinion and shape the eventual outcome.

Video: How To Vote Well
Video: Why Are Voters So Uninformed?

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Law of Demand
As prices decrease, the quantity demanded increases or as prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases.
Natural rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Inalienable rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Except where authorized by people through the Constitution, government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Popular sovereignty
The power of government flows from the people.
Separation of powers
A system of distinct powers built into the constitution, to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.
Checks and balances
Powers distributed among the branches of government allowing each to limit the application of power of the other branches and to prevent expansion of power of any branch.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Fairness or reasonableness in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
private property
The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.
limited government
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
representative government
(or republican government) Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
republican government
(or representative government)Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
civil discourse
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
The fundamental principles by which a state or nation is governed. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, lays out the roles and powers of each of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the protections of due process and rule of law in the states, a republican form of government, and the manner in which to amend the document.
Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a Virginia plantation owner who was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson served as a legislator and governor in Virginia, as well as an ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and the third President of the United States. During his political career, Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison, and he bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. After his presidency, Jefferson started the University of Virginia near his home, Monticello.
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which limit government power and protect individual liberties, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly, as well as protections against cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable search and seizure, and other due process rights.
Second Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights to create a militia and to bear arms. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Due Process
The government must interact with all persons according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all persons.
Every individual is equal to every other person with respect to natural rights and treatment before the law.
Consent of the governed
The authority of the government must come from the people through elections and through the people’s interaction with government.
Individual responsibility
Individuals must take care of themselves and their families, and be vigilant to preserve their liberty and the liberty of others.
Rule of law
Government officials and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power.
Declaration of Independence
The document written in 1776 by the Founders to send to Britain’s King George III in which independence from Britain was declared and the reasons for the separation were explained.
Articles of Confederation
The first national government document developed in 1781 by the Founders. The Articles created a federal legislative branch, but there was no executive or judiciary. The states retained most of the governmental powers.
The group of people who wrote and influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and the United States Bill of Rights. These men were instrumental in establishing the nation and its governmental documents and practices.
Federalist Papers
A series of 85 essays written to convince the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. The authors were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These documents are considered to be the most authoritative explanation of the political theory of the Constitution.
First Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Law of Supply
As the price drops, the quantity supplied also drops.
Fourth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures of property and explains that warrants must be issued with probable cause. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Fifth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right indictment by a jury, against double jeopardy, self-incrimination, loss of life, liberty, or property without due process, and just compensation for private property taken for public use. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Tenth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it states that the powers not enumerated or delegated in the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Eighth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects against excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Ninth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, the listing of certain rights protected by the Constitution cannot be used to deny rights not enumerated in the document. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Alexander Hamilton
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton served as General Washington’s chief of staff, promoted the ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, and founded the nation’s financial system and first political party.
James Madison
Madison was a Framer who was instrumental in writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison partnered with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of the ratification of the Constitution. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States.
George Washington
First President of the United States, George Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
John Locke
An English philosopher and physician, John Locke was one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and is known today as the Father of Classical Liberalism.
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies, represented the colonists during and after the American Revolution. The Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Articles of Confederation.
King George III
King George III was the King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution. His actions towards the American colonies, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, spurred the American Revolution.
Great Depression
Spanning ten years from 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was one of the longest-lasting economic downturns in the history of the United States affecting the U.S. and most of the world.
An introductory statement, preface, or introduction.
Cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.
Using power over people in a way that is cruel and unfair.
John Adams
Before becoming the second President of the United States, John Adams served as the country’s first Vice President under George Washington. Adams was an advocate of American independence from Britain and a Federalist.
John Jay
Founding Father John Jay was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris and served as the first Chief Justice of the United States. He was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Third Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens against the quartering of soldiers in private homes without their approval. “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Sixth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the rights of impartial jury trials, the right to be informed of the accusations against you, the right to be confronted by witness, and the right to be assisted by counsel. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Seventh Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right of jury trials in law suits dealing with more than twenty dollars and protects against reexamination of the trial in any court if decided by a jury. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his works Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. He visited the U.S. in the 1830s and wrote admiringly about many aspects of American law and society.
Democracy in America
Written by Alexis de Tocqueville after visiting the United States, Democracy in America contains de Tocqueville’s analysis of and reflections on the United States’ democratic system and society. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.
Magna Carta
Written in 1215, it is the oldest document in the British and American heritage of rights. Contributed to the adoption of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, and speaks of these rights as ancient.
Two Treatises of Civil Government
Written by John Locke in 1690, the Two Treatises of Civil Government criticize absolute power for kings and outline Locke’s suggestions for a more civilized society based on natural rights and the social contract.
Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The group of people who actually attended the Constitutional Convention and participated in writing the Constitution.
Fourteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1868, it states that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and ensures that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sixteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the ability to collect income taxes. “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”
Eighteenth Amendment
atified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment introduced Prohibition, the period of United States history when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was made illegal throughout the country. “Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
Twentieth Amendment
The Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933, and it establishes procedures for presidential succession and the start and end of federal officials’ terms of office. “Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
Twenty-First Amendment
In 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending Prohibition. “Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
English Bill of Rights
Passed by the British Parliament in 1689, the English Bill of Rights limited the power of the British monarch, outlined the rights of the Parliament, and guaranteed Protestants the right to bear arms.
The legislative body of the United Kingdom (known as Great Britain or England during the Founding era).
Benjamin Franklin
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor and diplomat. He served in the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Franklin helped negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and later served as a delegate to the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.
The right to vote.
A government in which the power belongs to citizens through the right to vote.
Fifteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1870, it states that the right could not be restricted based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” “Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Seventeenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment introduced direct election of Senators. “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
Nineteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1920, the amendment stated that a citizen’s right to vote must not be restricted based on gender. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Direct Democracy
Direct democracy is a political system in which the people vote directly on policies or laws, as opposed to voting for representatives who enact laws on their behalf.
Not planned or chosen for a particular reason; done without concern for what is fair or right.
Judicial Review
The process by which courts analyze the constitutionality of an act of government.
Majority rule/minority rights
laws may be made with the consent of the majority, but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.
An arbitrary order or decree.
Something that is owned by a person, business, etc. This includes possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, and the fruits of one's labor.
A government in which the power is held by the people.
Electoral College
A body of electors chosen by each state to vote for the president and vice president of the United States.
Conduct that reflects universal principles of moral and ethical excellence essential to leading a worthwhile life and to effective self-government. For many leading Founders, attributes of character such as justice, responsibility, perseverance, etc., were thought to flow from an understanding of the rights and obligations of men. Virtue is compatible with, but does not require, religious belief.