A new week, a new topic, Rachit. We talked about sports, so to segue, I’ll quote my immigrant mother when she sees me watching the world cup: ‘Which team are you voting for?’ she’ll ask.
‘Rooting for, mom,’ I’ll correct her. ‘I’m voting for the green party and their soccer team is not very good.’

So, voting. Democracy: the great social pinnacle of our time, and another great dichotomous theme. On one hand, millions of people around the world are willing to risk their lives for the chance to mark a box on a piece of paper, while on the other, the process has become stale in many western countries, with record low voter turn outs. People talk of many democratic decisions negatively: ‘designed by committee’, ‘too many chefs in the kitchen,’ yet political processes are often criticized not for the process itself, but for the ‘corrupt politicians’ who participate in them.

The optimal social structure has of course been a topic of debate since antiquity (if you haven’t read Plato’s utopia in his ‘Republic,’ it’s an interesting take on the ideal society). I think we would be wise to stray away from talking about the merits of specific political systems so we don’t look like straight up ignoramuses. Sufficed to say that most of the modern systems have tried their best to heed the advice of Peter Parker’s uncle: ‘with great power, comes great responsibility.’ But, of course, with diluted power comes anonymity, corruption and slow, lacklustre progress.

One particularly interesting mathematical result you may have not heard about is the Arrow’s impossibility theorem. Briefly, the theorem states that it is in fact impossible for any rank-order deterministic voting system to satisfy several reasonable expectations (‘fairness criteria’) within a political system that has three or more possible voting options. So even in principle, people will always have a reason to complain in any democratic process (that is deterministically determined – there are interesting probabilistic approaches, similar in spirit to the ‘anti-tanking’ rules in the NBA/NHL for draft lotteries, that can get around this limitation).

So with that, I want to ask you a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately. If one is losing faith in the political system (perhaps also lacking the time to understand the issues and the unadulterated positions of each political option), is it better to abstain from voting or to choose the best of the available options? Should one follow George Carlin (see his famous ‘Why I don’t vote’ standup) and stay home on election day or should we suck it up and choose one side?

For the sake of this post, it would be great if I had a clear-cut position on this that we could debate. But I have to be honest with you: I don’t. I’ve re-written this paragraph several times, thinking of counter points just as I finish my last sentence (dammit, Mary Shelley, I hate opinions too!). It’s definitely a compelling argument to say that one has to vote because we must deal with the system and the options that are handed to us (much like other parts of life). Conversely, however, the need to ‘choose sides,’ can and often does to lead to extremist candidates (tea party?) that cause unnecessary gridlock in political systems serving diverse populations. It’s easy to recommend voting only after you’ve read and understood the issues, but if the person needs convincing that it is worthwhile to vote in the first place, how likely will they be to fully comprehend nuanced, 21st century political debate?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.