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« On data growth and growing concerns | Main | polls and cellphones »

2 November 2008

Silent doors and the electoral college

Democracy takes place at the doorway. The doorways of our homes represents the literal and metaphorical threshold between our private lives and society. From the perspective of our democracy, the doorway is the place where our private interests and perspectives meet those of others. In particular, my interest today is in the many thousands of people canvassing today for Obama and McCain (and other candidates), engaging their fellow citizens in discussions of our common interests, in an attempt to persuade and to mobilize. As I discussed in an earlier entry, the weekend before the primaries someone from my neighborhood knocked on my door, trying to persuade me to vote for Barack Obama. There is no one knocking on doors today in Massachusetts. To the extent there are people from Massachusetts canvassing today, they are up in New Hampshire

There is, of course, a clear strategic imperative for this, and it is not that there are more votes to be won or lost in New Hampshire. It is that New Hampshire is a swing state, and Massachusetts (decidedly) is not. This is a clear result of the winner take all electoral system of the electoral college in the US (with the partial exceptions of Maine and Nebraska). As has been noted many times, this winner take all system does create the possibility of a mismatch between the winner of the most votes and the election (cf Bush v. Gore 2000). However, I think this misses the biggest perversion of the electoral college. Democracy is not just about some set of rules that roughly translates the popular will into policy (although it is certainly partially that). Democracy is also about exactly those conversations at the doorway. And one purpose of an election is to spur those interactions. Of course, those conversations are taking place, even in Massachusetts. But the machinery that brings the election to your door just simply is not there. And those quiet doors around most of the country, I think, represent an enormous lost opportunity for our democracy.

Posted by David Lazer at November 2, 2008 11:38 AM