Democracy’s Power Rests with the Many

We must first define our goals and then unite our efforts.

[I wrote this essay in 2004 and it was originally published by The Birmingham News on October 24, 2004.]

An essay from 2004 published by The Birmingham News

For years, we have heard repeatedly that each and every vote makes a difference. We have heard that one vote – my vote, your vote – can be the one that decides the next election.

Agents of get-out-the-vote groups are quick with examples of how one vote has made all the difference in the world.

It is true that your vote – and my vote – is important. But I think that Alabamians – especially those Alabamians who choose not to vote – know that it is disingenuous to suggest that each of their votes could be the one that decides any particular election.

It is true that in some places, the vote of one person is the deciding factor in an election. Indeed, in Alabama, in 1992, one vote was the margin of victory in three separate elections.

A city council runoff in Selma showed a final vote of 408-407.

A town council election in Trinity was decided 128-127.

And in the Democratic Party primary for a Madison County commission race, the final tally was 1,815-1,814.

More recently, we have seen some elections where any single person’s vote could have altered the outcome. Take this year’s municipal elections.

In Carbon Hill, the final total in a council race was 35-35. (Under state law, the mayor and city council broke the tie.)

And in Guntersville, the final tally in that city’s mayoral contest was 1,242-1,241. (A contest of that election is pending.)

So it’s true that in some instances, one vote can literally make all the difference.

But these examples are rarities, anomalies, that political junkies love to discuss. And further, these are from elections where voter turnout is very small, relatively speaking. And when you have a low number of voters, you increase the likelihood of one vote being a deciding factor.

If we look at elections for large jurisdictions, the chance of one vote making any literal difference in the outcome is infinitesimal. Take a statewide race for governor. Or the national contest for president. The likelihood that one voter will be able to swing the results is fodder for a quaint political daydream worthy of Walter Mitty.

The truth be told, one vote does make a difference, but it’s power is not in terms of being able to swing an election by itself. We do not have “elections of one”.

The power of democracy, by definition, does not rest with any one particular person. “Democracy” refers to “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives”.

Even if we consider ourselves more appropriately a constitutional republic, we would believe we live in “a political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them”.

The idea, of course, is that in a representative government we citizens come together and decide who will represent us. It’s a group project, not a responsibility that any one of us shoulders alone.

We have a responsibility to persuade others to agree with us if we wish to move the levers of government. Or at least we should find like-minded people and join forces.

That’s the fundamental dynamic of an American election: convincing people that your agenda or your candidate is the right one for your city, your county, your state, your nation.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Her commentary speaks to the power of individuals to seek change when they have grabbed onto an idea. Grabbing onto the idea is only the first step, though. Those individuals must then become advocates for their idea – or in the case of elections, their candidate.

They must take their candidate to their community, be it nation, state, or city. They must solicit support from friends, family, neighbors and other citizens. They must build a coalition of voters committed to the candidate’s election.

The electoral process will reward them with success only if they can garner agreement from a majority – or at least a plurality – of voters.

In Alabama and America, the foundation of government is comprised of the people: “We, the people”.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution makes clear the type of system for which we strive, for which the founding colonists laid down their lives. The bedrock on which America’s great experiment in democracy rests is the notion of government based on the shared goals and concerted effort. Not the power of “one”.

To speak of the power of one person’s vote in swaying an election one way or another is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. We must first define our goals and then unite our efforts.

Through this process, we develop the strategy to ensure that our candidates or issues win the day. And the more successful we are in developing that strategy, the less important it will be to consider whether any one person’s vote can empower – or frustrate – our efforts.