Democracy, Elections and Voting — Part 3

Winston Churchill’s pithy observation that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” is unfortunately too accurate to be dismissed lightly. We are often acutely reminded of that by the results of elections, in developed as well as in developing countries. It is a marvel that the myth of the enlightened voter persists against all evidence to the contrary.

The problem is that voters are not enlightened beings — but then no one is. The best we can hope for is informed voters. Fortunately, that is sufficient for our purposes which is, to put it briefly, choosing good policymakers. Although there are no theoretical impediments to the task of educating voters to the degree required for fully informed voting, it is impractical to do so in a world of limited resources, complex issues, and very large number of voters. That’s a problem, but like all problems of human societies, there are ways to work around them satisfactorily, if not solve them entirely.

India’s system of choosing policymakers is one of representative democracy with universal adult franchise. People generally accept that almost as if it were an unalterable fact of nature, and if not actually the best way of choosing a government, the widespread belief is that it works sufficiently well that there is absolutely no need to question it or seek alternatives. I think this is profoundly mistaken. I believe that we have to recognize the inherent, deeply embedded flaws in the system, and replace it to suit the reality of India.

We often hear about the “wisdom of the crowds.” The phrase has a comforting assurance to it which arises from the counter-intuitive realization that while the individual is not particularly wise, the collective is surprisingly full of wisdom and insight. But that assurance is at best an illusion maintained only by a suspension of disbelief, and is ultimately cold comfort in the face of real troubles brought on by the real stupidity of people.

The more the merrier, it is said. Perhaps, if you are talking about a party with your dearly liked family and friends. But not quite so much fun if the people involved are people like them rather than people like us. In fact, the more the PLT, the sorrier. The assumption I make here is that the present company — the PLU — are the informed kind and the PLT are the uninformed kind. There’s no need for me to waste time justifying that assumption, as it is so self-evidently true. (Make what you will of that.)

Getting back to the matter at hand. Uninformed voters are a positive danger to society. One uninformed voter is just fine. A few even — not a huge problem. But when their numbers grow to the hundreds of thousands — god forbid, millions — then you are asking for trouble. The theoretical argument for this is summarized by the Condorcet jury theorem (formulated by the Marquis de Condorcet in 1785, Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions.)

The theorem addresses the question of the optimal size of a decision-making group where the rule is that majority vote determines the decision. The model assumes that the individuals in the group have a certain (and equal) probability of making a good decision. If that probability of an individual making a good decision is more than half, then “adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. In the limit, the probability that the majority votes correctly approaches 1 as the number of voters increases.” But if the probability of an individual making the right decision is less than half, “then adding more voters makes things worse: the optimal jury consists of a single voter.”

In real life, of course, voters are not homogeneous in their knowledge and cognitive abilities. But that does not alter the fundamental point that the larger the collection of uninformed voters, the higher the probability that the majority decision may turn out to be a bomb.

A few paragraphs up, I wrote, “of real troubles brought on by the real stupidity of people.” Stupid people are dangerous.

Allow me to briefly digress at this point. Prof Cipolla codified the basic laws of human stupidity thusly:

  • First Basic Law: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  • Second Basic Law: The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  • Third (and Golden) Basic Law: A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  • Fourth Basic Law: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be costly mistake.
  • Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
  • Corollary to the Fifth Basic Law: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

(See this post of Feb 2006, “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” for details.)

While it is quite true that stupid people cause us needless troubles, thankfully not all people are stupid–only a small fraction of humanity is stupid. But you really don’t need a plane load of stupid people when the same negative effects of stupidity can be duplicated by a sufficiently large collection of uninformed people. A sufficiently large collection of uninformed people are indistinguishable from group stupidity in their effect on society. (With apologies to Arthur C Clarke.)

Stupidity is a congenital problem rooted in the brain. It cannot be cured. Being misinformed or uninformed is not similarly incurable. Nothing prevents us from making fully informed all the citizens who are eligible voters — nothing except that it would be too costly in term of time and money.

But wait! Do we really have to inform and educate all voters? Can we do something which does not involve educating everyone but that will have the same outcome as if we were to fully educate all the voters? Yes!

Imagine choosing a random sample of voters from the population. Then you educate this subset of voters intensively about the issues, the political parties and their manifestos, about the candidates, about the pros and cons of various proposals, about everything that a voter should be aware of before voting. Finally, you let these people cast their votes and figure out the winners of the election.

How large does the sample size has to be so that its choice is statistically close to the choice of the population? This always comes as a surprise to those of us who are unfamiliar with statistics, but the number is relatively small.

Take a look at this handy table (Source):

       Sample Size Table

Let’s examine one line in there. For a population of 5,000, if you need a 95% confidence level and a margin of error of 2.5%, then you have to have a sample of 1,176 — that is, over 20% of the population will have to be sampled. But for the same confidence level and the same margin of error, for a population of 300 million (an increase of 60,000 times in population over 5,000), the sample size goes up to only 1,537 (an increase of only only 1.3 times), or about 0.0005% of the population.

From the same table, if you need to have a confidence level of 99% and an error margin of 1%, you can sample on 16,586 to get the population estimate of 300,000,000 people. That is, you need to get only 5 out of every 10,000 people.

Imagine that. If 300,000,000 people were to vote, the results would be indistinguishable, for all practical purposes, from the results of a properly randomly selected subset of 16,586 voters. If it costs $1,000 to properly educate a voter, then educating 300,000,000 is an impossibility. But it will cost less than $17 million to educate the sample voters.

Three hundred billion dollars is a number too large for us to comprehend, leave alone spend. But $17 million we can understand: it’s what Mukeshbhai spent on the bathroom sink in the smallest of the guest bathrooms in his fugly mansion (if one goes by the reported $2 billion he spent on it.)

I will go into some details of this idea later. In the next post on the topic, I will look into “deliberative democracy.” Go to Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy to understand what it is.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2

Author: Atanu Dey


12 thoughts on “Democracy, Elections and Voting — Part 3”

  1. Won’t this essentially shift the power to the teachers , and those who are in charge of preparing the briefs that these 17000 or so people get to read?


  2. Interesting, but what if all of them are educated like the JNU folks, who despite being “educated” (perhaps just enough to pass exams), are devoid enough of common sense and bigoted enough to think clearly and rationally?


  3. All those educated voters will be able to do nothing if the choices on the ballot are worthless and corrupt. Whereas, if you change the criteria so that only capable people (however you want to define it in your system – e.g. good policymakers, honest people) run for elections, that will render null and void, any pernicious effects of uneducated voters and stupid people.


  4. A) ‘Wisdom of the crowd’ – Isn’t that how the market works? If you do not believe in ‘wisdom of the crowd’, what belief do you have in the market? Alternatively, should we not just give access to the market to the informed and educated sample few instead of the entire population set?

    B) I would argue that that the voter need not be ‘very’ knowledgeable. What he/she needs to understand is the reasons and impact of the vote. The voter need not know inner mechanics of party politics but he should be knowledgeable that he is electing a politician to provide a service ie governance.

    Not every voter needs to care about India’s policy towards S. America, what every voter needs to know is that he should be electing someone who would serve him/her.

    End of the day, what do most Indians care about? Food, water & shelter (alternatively better off classes would be Bijli, sadak & Makaan). Voter needs to relate that his inability to get access to them is related to the people he is voting.

    I guess the sample size you are speaking of works if ‘wisdom/decision criteria/reaction’ is random in nature. Pick a sample from this ‘normal’ population, educate them and their opinion will give you a high probability that that the population will have the same opinion given the same education.Unfortunately, we are not that random group. Given the same education, people of TN might choose a completely different head of state as compared to say Orissa.

    Voter education is still the only way out, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.

    By the way, assuming 10% of voters are knowledgeable, all we need is to target 40% more. I have serious doubts on $1,000 per voter (thats 45,000 Rs) to educate one voter. Maybe we should be thinking of cheaper ways to educate the voter.


  5. A very important issue is the size of India and diversity of opinion and cultures within it.

    India’s size hurts India more than it helps. With such massive diversity there can NEVER be one leader who has broad based support. Thus complete majority to any party is almost impossible.
    Besides how on earth a person from Punjab really represent people of Assam?? This is NOT DONE ANYWHERE in the world, EVER !!!

    India being one country is the result of state-ist, central planning, socialist/communist view of the world from 1940s and 1950s.

    Look at the fake big countries that were formed during that time, Russia, Yugoslavia etc have broken into more sense making smaller units. 1950s style state-ism meant that the state was more important than the individual. This is opposite of a true democracy where the ultimate sovereign is the citizen, the individual.


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  7. wisdom of the crowds works only when life and property rights are protected.that is why a free market is dependent on these 2 two things.and thereby arises the wisdom of the market.
    wisdom of markets doesnt mean that mobs have intelligence.

    the voting mechanism is irrelevant even if voters are enlightened because given a chance to have a free lunch,everyone will try to do so.
    instead of deliberative democracy,try reading hans herman-hoppe on the democracy-the god that failed.


  8. Good thought provoking article!

    Defining whats stupid for the voter to do is a little tricky.Further,voters making ‘stupid’ choices in a democracy is not the biggest problem,having ‘good’ choices available is.

    Take recently held Tamil Nadu elections.

    Were the 50% plus voters who cast the vote for AIADMK or DMDK stupid? Or were the 43% casting votes for DMK stupid?

    Surely,if those voting for DMK did it because they liked the freebies more than they disliked corruption then they have made a good personal selfish choice.Its still a rationally valid choice.

    The ones voting for AIADMK are also rational and for arguement sake lets say they all voted for AIADMK to take out their anger against DMK corruption,it was still a good choice.

    The bigger problem for the 50% plus casting votes for AIADMK(presumably)is that they wanted to cast a vote against ‘corruption’ and had no other choice but to give it to a Jayalalitha who has been convicted for ‘corruption’.

    In other words, they wanted to vote against corruption and not necessarily AIADMK(this is an assumption guys).Now, if they wanted to vote for a party which is ‘strongly’ against terror they might have wanted to vote for BJP..however weak BJP might be there today.In other words, people vote for ‘issues’ lot of the time and should.Once they decide which issue matters more they choose a proxy..the political party.

    So maybe voter should cast two votes,one rank order of issues of his importance and then a rank order of top parties on those issues.So for instance,if DMDK was ranked as #1 in terms of transparency and voters chose that as the #1 issue then all those who voters who chose transparency as #1/2/3 issues should go to DMDK.So political parties will have to take a two pronged approach make voters choose issue of their interest and also ensure all voters choose them as top for that issue.

    As I mentioned earliar, today the regionalism and polity has thrown up a two faced problem on the one hand local parties are getting bigger and bigger parties getting converged.But the system is rotten and all are corrupt,some more than the other.We dont just need informed voters making good choices but that those choices to be available and the above mentioned within the confines of current system is the only way to choose right people for the right job.

    Just a thought on a sunday afternoon!!!


  9. India is NOT a democracy.
    1. Anti-defection law prevents your MLAs/MPs to vote against corrupt/incompetent govt
    2. 836 million Indians surviving on 20 rupees/day will not vote as per their conscience


  10. Interesting article.

    Three points:

    1. We have representative democracy rather than deliberative democracy. People choose representatives who make decisions and do not directly weigh in on the decisions themselves. As such , the choice is of the suitability of the candidates rather than of the issues. Voters can influence their representatives on an issue only if it has a bearing on the election – such an issue may or may not be the most germane to the running of the government. It would be interesting to see how your analysis applies to this real world situation. ( One notes that ballot initiatives constitute the exception as an exercise in direct democracy, an idea discredited in the ancient world, and as California is no doubt finding out, not such a great idea as currently implemented.)

    2. As others have pointed out ‘educating’ a sampled electorate may itself be subject to controversy.

    3. It has been pointed out that the real function of elections is to legitimize the government, good or bad. This is unlikely to remain the case if all voters are not given the chance to vote.


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