Free Elections That Weren't

The 2020 presidential elections were not entirely free due to a large-scale participation, facilitated by the adoption of mail-in voting in the aftermath the coronavirus pandemic, of persuadable voters who would either refrain from in-person voting if it were the only venue allowed, or would have voted differently if their choices weren't influenced by biased or false information that they were fed by social and mass media as well as educational institutions. As a result, it was the media and educational institutions, and not the American electorate alone, who co-decided the 2020 presidential elections. This conclusion demonstrates irrationality and harmfulness of the popular mantra that any increase of voter turnout regardless of the level of rationality and interest of the extra voters is necessarily beneficial for democracy and the society that professes it.

The elections comprise of three major components: the voting, the counting of the votes, including collection of the votes and certification of the results, and the means of information access and control on all issues pertaining to the subject or subjects of the elections.

Elections are free if each eligible individual voter can freely decide, without fear of retribution, whether to vote or not and, if he/she decides to vote, whom or what to vote for. These presume that each eligible individual voter is given an unobstructed access to publicly available information on all issues pertaining to the subject or subjects of the elections. Of course, the elections' freedom so outlined does not guarantee their fairness or honesty as the counting of the votes may or may not preserve their integrity. Nevertheless, without the said freedom it is hard to deem any elections to be honest or fair. In this article, I will focus on such freedom and socially undesirable consequences of a lack thereof.

Persuadable voters and the harvesting of their votes

In the past, eligible individual voters who did not feel strong enough about who should win the election did often refrain from voting. This should be considered an exercise of their right to decide whether to vote or to abstain. It tended to have a significant beneficial impact on the rationality of the elections' outcomes as it decreased the randomness of individual voting choices by delegating the choices to the segment of eligible voters who were more likely to be well-informed and genuinely willing to elect the candidate who was objectively the best for them and for the country.

Clearly, the uninterested and uninformed (or simply: undecided) voters were more likely to be persuaded whom should they vote for, than those interested in electing the best candidate and possessing enough information to make a rational choice.

I will refer to the former ones as the persuadable voters.

Up until emergence of practical and effective methods of mass persuasion, relatively few individuals and groups of influence had a good reason to push for an increased participation of undecided voters in elections. There was no clear benefit for these individuals and groups resulting from such an increase.

The situation today is different. The persuadable voters can be identified with the state-of-the-art methods of Big Data, predictive analytics, etc. These voters can be persuaded en masse with direct advertising as well as with overwhelming amount of biased samples of reality, coordinated and aggressive advertising via social and mass media, and politically biased education in schools and colleges, to vote according to preferences of the persuaders. Their votes may be then harvested in the case they are not motivated enough to actually go out and vote. But still a large number of the persuadable voters are less likely than those with firm and strong opinions to cast their votes as in many cases harvesting may be impractical or infeasible. That would leave a significant portion of gain on investment by the persuaders unrealized.

The mail-in voting facilitates full realization of the said investment. Therefore, it must surprise no one that the most dedicated and serious persuaders were aggressively advocating adoption of mail-in voting as it would significantly increase the number of votes cast for the candidate they were promoting.

Because young voters, still in their formative age, are more likely than more mature voters to be persuadable, the persuaders have been advocating to lower the minimum voting age below 18 years. If such a decrease is legislated in America, then it will significantly increase participation of persuadable voters whose votes can be harvested or collected, say, via mail-in voting or campus drop-off boxes, for the benefit of the persuaders who often have a significant impact on the direction of political bias in educational institutions.

Effective persuasion vs. electoral freedom

Clearly, the voters who were indoctrinated or deceived into believing in false theses and voted based on such false beliefs were not entirely free because they were likely misinterpreting the consequences of their choices. Therefore, any form of mass propaganda, censorship, or indoctrination, whether carried on by private or public entities, decreases the degree of electoral freedom. Also, the voters who would opt to not vote if left alone but ended up casting their votes through mail-in vote, harvesters, or campus drop-off boxes, were partially deprived of their right to freely decide whether to vote or to abstain. Therefore, elections incorporating unsolicited "encouragements" to vote tend decrease the degree of electoral freedom and cannot be deemed entirely free elections. The most extreme infringement of the said freedom would be an imposition of a duty to vote, a legal obligation that has been instituted in some countries but - fortunately - not in the U.S. For it is beneficial to free society if those who are undecided, or not informed enough, or simply don't care, have a freedom to not vote.

Appropriate legislation may protect voters' right to decide whether to vote or to abstain. However, legislating against misinformation or deception appears difficult, if at all possible.

First, it would most likely violate First Amendment rights of the persuaders. Even if narrowly drafted to criminalize falsification (misinformation being a subcategory of), it must fall short of enacting objectively correct and computationally feasible criterion of truth simply because it has been proved that such a criterion does not exist. Also, we need to remember that several popular movements that led to abolition of non-transparent governments that were detrimental to the governed, including the American Revolution, were partially based on false premises as a result of governmental secrecy that made impossible for the governed to know all relevant truth before the abolition took place. Thus legislating against false information is likely to have a detrimental effect on the viability of dissent.

Therefore, it appears appropriate to leave it mostly to the individuals to decide which theses they accept as true and which they don't, even though it leaves room for possible deception and misinformation. However, in the light of the foregoing observations, extending Constitutional protection to groups and organizations for their systemic informational bias, propaganda, and censorship has no clear benefits to the society as it is likely to facilitate a decrease of the electoral freedom.

Detriments of decrease of degree of electoral freedom

The above-mentioned methods of a decrease of the electoral freedom, when implemented, turn a large number of undecided but persuadable eligible voters who, if left alone, would likely abstain from voting into actual voters who make their choices based on preferences of the persuaders rather then their own, or make random and irrational choices due to their lack of sufficient information of their false believes. Such a decrease clearly diminishes the chances that they elect the best candidate for themselves and the country. It also shifts, even if partially so, the decision who gets elected from the electorate to the persuaders thus decreasing the elect's accountability to the electorate.

The detrimental ramification of the above effects on the democracy and the society that professes it are obvious.

Persuadable voters can be identified and persuaded en masse with existing advanced methods of (mostly digital) marketing and advertising. However, they are less likely than those with firm and strong opinions to cast their votes. Vote harvesting is an effective and practical means to increase participation of such persuadable voters. Mail-in voting further increases participation of such persuadable voters as does installation of voting places in schools and colleges. When applied together, they have potential of swaying elections in favor of the candidate preferred by the persuaders even if the election contests are not close. Such an outcome has an obvious detrimental effect on fairness of the elections and it disenfranchises, even if partially so, the American electorate. It makes the government less accountable to the governed which in itself is harmful to the American society.

Image credit: Pixabay public domain

The 2020 presidential elections were not entirely free due to a large-scale participation, facilitated by the adoption of mail-in voting in the aftermath the coronavirus pandemic, of persuadable voters who would either refrain from in-person voting if it were the only venue allowed, or would have voted differently if their choices weren't influenced by biased or false information that they were fed by social and mass media as well as educational institutions. As a result, it was the media and educational institutions, and not the American electorate alone, who co-decided the 2020 presidential elections. This conclusion demonstrates irrationality and harmfulness of the popular mantra that any increase of voter turnout regardless of the level of rationality and interest of the extra voters is necessarily beneficial for democracy and the society that professes it.

The elections comprise of three major components: the voting, the counting of the votes, including collection of the votes and certification of the results, and the means of information access and control on all issues pertaining to the subject or subjects of the elections.

Elections are free if each eligible individual voter can freely decide, without fear of retribution, whether to vote or not and, if he/she decides to vote, whom or what to vote for. These presume that each eligible individual voter is given an unobstructed access to publicly available information on all issues pertaining to the subject or subjects of the elections. Of course, the elections' freedom so outlined does not guarantee their fairness or honesty as the counting of the votes may or may not preserve their integrity. Nevertheless, without the said freedom it is hard to deem any elections to be honest or fair. In this article, I will focus on such freedom and socially undesirable consequences of a lack thereof.

Persuadable voters and the harvesting of their votes

In the past, eligible individual voters who did not feel strong enough about who should win the election did often refrain from voting. This should be considered an exercise of their right to decide whether to vote or to abstain. It tended to have a significant beneficial impact on the rationality of the elections' outcomes as it decreased the randomness of individual voting choices by delegating the choices to the segment of eligible voters who were more likely to be well-informed and genuinely willing to elect the candidate who was objectively the best for them and for the country.

Clearly, the uninterested and uninformed (or simply: undecided) voters were more likely to be persuaded whom should they vote for, than those interested in electing the best candidate and possessing enough information to make a rational choice.

I will refer to the former ones as the persuadable voters.

Up until emergence of practical and effective methods of mass persuasion, relatively few individuals and groups of influence had a good reason to push for an increased participation of undecided voters in elections. There was no clear benefit for these individuals and groups resulting from such an increase.

The situation today is different. The persuadable voters can be identified with the state-of-the-art methods of Big Data, predictive analytics, etc. These voters can be persuaded en masse with direct advertising as well as with overwhelming amount of biased samples of reality, coordinated and aggressive advertising via social and mass media, and politically biased education in schools and colleges, to vote according to preferences of the persuaders. Their votes may be then harvested in the case they are not motivated enough to actually go out and vote. But still a large number of the persuadable voters are less likely than those with firm and strong opinions to cast their votes as in many cases harvesting may be impractical or infeasible. That would leave a significant portion of gain on investment by the persuaders unrealized.

The mail-in voting facilitates full realization of the said investment. Therefore, it must surprise no one that the most dedicated and serious persuaders were aggressively advocating adoption of mail-in voting as it would significantly increase the number of votes cast for the candidate they were promoting.

Because young voters, still in their formative age, are more likely than more mature voters to be persuadable, the persuaders have been advocating to lower the minimum voting age below 18 years. If such a decrease is legislated in America, then it will significantly increase participation of persuadable voters whose votes can be harvested or collected, say, via mail-in voting or campus drop-off boxes, for the benefit of the persuaders who often have a significant impact on the direction of political bias in educational institutions.

Effective persuasion vs. electoral freedom

Clearly, the voters who were indoctrinated or deceived into believing in false theses and voted based on such false beliefs were not entirely free because they were likely misinterpreting the consequences of their choices. Therefore, any form of mass propaganda, censorship, or indoctrination, whether carried on by private or public entities, decreases the degree of electoral freedom. Also, the voters who would opt to not vote if left alone but ended up casting their votes through mail-in vote, harvesters, or campus drop-off boxes, were partially deprived of their right to freely decide whether to vote or to abstain. Therefore, elections incorporating unsolicited "encouragements" to vote tend decrease the degree of electoral freedom and cannot be deemed entirely free elections. The most extreme infringement of the said freedom would be an imposition of a duty to vote, a legal obligation that has been instituted in some countries but - fortunately - not in the U.S. For it is beneficial to free society if those who are undecided, or not informed enough, or simply don't care, have a freedom to not vote.

Appropriate legislation may protect voters' right to decide whether to vote or to abstain. However, legislating against misinformation or deception appears difficult, if at all possible.

First, it would most likely violate First Amendment rights of the persuaders. Even if narrowly drafted to criminalize falsification (misinformation being a subcategory of), it must fall short of enacting objectively correct and computationally feasible criterion of truth simply because it has been proved that such a criterion does not exist. Also, we need to remember that several popular movements that led to abolition of non-transparent governments that were detrimental to the governed, including the American Revolution, were partially based on false premises as a result of governmental secrecy that made impossible for the governed to know all relevant truth before the abolition took place. Thus legislating against false information is likely to have a detrimental effect on the viability of dissent.

Therefore, it appears appropriate to leave it mostly to the individuals to decide which theses they accept as true and which they don't, even though it leaves room for possible deception and misinformation. However, in the light of the foregoing observations, extending Constitutional protection to groups and organizations for their systemic informational bias, propaganda, and censorship has no clear benefits to the society as it is likely to facilitate a decrease of the electoral freedom.

Detriments of decrease of degree of electoral freedom

The above-mentioned methods of a decrease of the electoral freedom, when implemented, turn a large number of undecided but persuadable eligible voters who, if left alone, would likely abstain from voting into actual voters who make their choices based on preferences of the persuaders rather then their own, or make random and irrational choices due to their lack of sufficient information of their false believes. Such a decrease clearly diminishes the chances that they elect the best candidate for themselves and the country. It also shifts, even if partially so, the decision who gets elected from the electorate to the persuaders thus decreasing the elect's accountability to the electorate.

The detrimental ramification of the above effects on the democracy and the society that professes it are obvious.

Persuadable voters can be identified and persuaded en masse with existing advanced methods of (mostly digital) marketing and advertising. However, they are less likely than those with firm and strong opinions to cast their votes. Vote harvesting is an effective and practical means to increase participation of such persuadable voters. Mail-in voting further increases participation of such persuadable voters as does installation of voting places in schools and colleges. When applied together, they have potential of swaying elections in favor of the candidate preferred by the persuaders even if the election contests are not close. Such an outcome has an obvious detrimental effect on fairness of the elections and it disenfranchises, even if partially so, the American electorate. It makes the government less accountable to the governed which in itself is harmful to the American society.

Image credit: Pixabay public domain