1% Democracy

Romney wins in Wyoming. Well, good for him, but let’s look at what really happened in Wyoming (and in a bunch of other states).

Wyoming is the least populous state of the US. According to Wikipedia, only 509,293 lucky souls enjoy the beautiful mountain vistas of the Great State of Wyoming. Even with such a small population, the data from last night’s caucus make me feel a bit uncomfortable. As you probably know, Wyoming selects its candidates through an archaic and arcane process called a “caucus”. This is essentially a meeting where you have to listen to some surrogates for the candidates debate for a while. Then you are asked to write the name of your favorite candidate on a piece of paper which is then collected and counted.

Due to the convoluted procedure, the voter turnout in caucus states is typically very low. In Wyoming 2,108 people cast their vote at the caucus. That’s a mere 0.4% of the population. Ok, you’ll have some underage and non-US-citizens who aren’t allowed to vote, so let’s say you have 80% of the population that’s eligible to vote. That’s still only 0.5% of the potential voters showing up. And even if we count only Republican voters, the turnout looks scary low. In 2008 about 65% of the Wyomingites voted republican, which gets you to a 0.8% turnout among potential Republicans. Still incredibly low. The best I can do to get that number up a bit is to put the turnout in relation to the number of Wyomingites who actually voted Republican in 2008. That number is 164,598. Put the 2,108 voters in the caucuses in relation to that and you get a turnout of 1.28%. I’m still not impressed!

Why does this matter at all? It matters because it creates an illusion of a victory and in the end an illusion of democracy. With such a tiny turnout, it’s sufficient for a candidate to convince a certain group, say members of a certain Church or workers at a certain factory, to go vote. If you look at the difference between Romney and Santorum in Wyoming, it’s only 149 votes, or 0.09% of the estimated number of Republican voters (based on 2008)!

The problem with this situation is, of course, that the election result has absolutely nothing to do with the opinion of the people, but only how effective the campaigns were at finding and convincing key groups to vote.

Now, you may say, the Wyoming caucus was largely ignored by media, so why does this matter? To answer that question, let’s go a couple of weeks back and look at Minnesota. There you had a total voter turnout of about 2.6% of the population likely to vote republican (estimate based on the 2008 election results). This particular caucus was reported in media as a big win for Santorum. Even though Santorum’s victory was pretty decisive when expressed in terms of percentage points, we still need to remember that with such a miniscule turnout, the result hardly represents the opinion of the people, but simply how successful Santorum’s campaign strategists were at seeking out pockets of voters who already agree with him and just convince them to go to the caucus.

So, you ask again, why does this matter? It matters because it creates a domino-effect. It is very clear that the performance in one race determines who voters view the candidates in the next race. This effect is amplified by media that love to trumpet that a certain candidate has “gained momentum” and “shows strength” after a certain race.

How can we fix this? Well, I’m no architect of political systems, but it seems to me that the best way to address this problem is to remove any obstacles for the voters to maximize voter turnout and create a larger pool of voters that is more difficult to manipulate. The caucus system doesn’t look like it belongs in this century when you view it with my blue Swedish eyes…

Unless, of course, you (as a political figure) have something to gain from having access to a tiny pool of voters that’s easy and relatively cheap to manipulate… But let’s not engage in conspiracy theories.

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