Monday, October 06, 2008

Fiat Votes

This weekend I was thinking about the remark I made in my previous post about the popular vote:

But more importantly than this, not all of those votes in that tally were counted the same. And it's impossible for them to be, unless all our states had the same election laws and none of those laws allowed much wiggle room for interpretation by vote-counters. But both of these conditions are empirically false. A vote that would count in Miami might not count in Denver; and a vote that would not count in Los Angeles might have counted in Roswell, New Mexico. We are not using the same ballots. We are not using the same means of voting. Our votes are not counted according to the same laws, nor according to the same methods. And the reason is clear and explicit: we are not voting as a nation, we are voting as a state. In principle, my vote should count the same, to the extent humanly possible, as every other citizen in my state. If it's not, that's a sign that the state election laws need revision. But my vote is, strictly speaking, incommensurable with the vote of someone in a completely different state. We can only be treated as doing exactly the same thing by abstracting from a number of important differences.

Not only do I think this is true, I think it is true for reasons related to a feature of voting that is usually not noted, namely,that what actually gets tallied in a popular vote is not the vote you put in but a unit of exchange. That is, the government, through its election law, establishes by fiat a type of vote that is linked to certain standards of exchange. If this, this, and that condition are met, a punch on a paper ballot gets exchanged for this legal vote. If such-and-such obtains, an electronic entry gets exchanged for this legal vote. And so forth. If a state allows, say, punched paper ballots, electronic entries, and mail-in fill-in ballots, this is entirely arbitrary: it could just as easily deny any of these legitimacy. By allowing them, it says, "If such-and-such conditions are met, your entry gets exchanged for a legal vote, which will be counted in the election"; this legal vote works very much like a specialized kind of money. And it is legal votes, fiat votes, that are counted toward the official tally; and only those that are counted. Your actions in the voting booth receive their power by their exchange value: one mark on a ballot exchanges for one vote of political influence.

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