One of my favorite politicians is John Lewis, the 1960’s Civil Rights activist-turned-Congressman from Georgia. Unlike many politicians half his age, he is active on Facebook and on Twitter. A recent “tweet” from the week just past: “Democracy is an act. It requires participation, organization, and dedication to the highest principles.”
Participation can mean many things, but at its core it requires registering and voting. Did you know that fewer than 8% of South Carolinians voted in the recent primary runoff elections? That’s shameful. Let me write as a mathematician: that’s statistically dangerous.
Several lessons in my GRU “Statistics 101” course are about sampling techniques, and why a statistician should avoid, if at all possible, a “voluntary sample.” That’s the kind when you advertise that you’re doing a study, and then have people decide whether or not they want to participate. There are lots of examples, ranging from “If you agree text 12345 and if not text 54321” to “Please fill out a comment card and drop it by the cash register.” The reason those samples don’t work, is that only highly motivated people will participate; such samples don’t get at what the average person feels about the issue. And yet, that’s precisely what we do when we vote – we use a “voluntary sample” of the population of citizens old enough to vote. The results of the vote are supposed to indicate whom the actual population of adult citizens want to be their Mayor, or Committeeman, or President. And the results are highly inaccurate, unless … unless what?
The only way to overcome the shortcomings of any “voluntary sample” like voting is to ensure that those who are actually sampled truly represent the entire population. In studies like Nielson Ratings, that is done by carefully studying the demographic and then selecting “volunteers” in proportion. But that won’t work for voting. So there is another way: by ensuring that everybody – all of our adult population who are eligible to vote – are registered and then highly encouraged to vote. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (another of my heroes) in her latest book “A Fighting Chance” writes, “voter registration was supposed to be like organizing a blood drive or holding a Thanksgiving charity raffle – the kinds of values that we all support, from both political parties.” That makes sense, both politically and mathematically. Rules that make it harder to register and more difficult to vote make no sense in a democracy, politically or mathematically.
As you ponder the upcoming elections, consider the purpose of voting. It ought to be to find out what “We, the People” want from our government – and “We, the People” ought to mean everybody. The only way to find that out is to make it easier (not harder) for people to vote. Easing voter registration might lead to some voting fraud, although there have been so few such cases found that no election results – zero in South Carolina, per a recent study – have been affected by fraud. Draconian measures to prevent fraud, though, might make a real difference if they make it harder for our citizens to register and vote.
We should all support legislation to ease registering and voting. Who should be allowed to vote? Everybody who is eligible. Encourage everybody you know to register, and help them to do so if they need help. This November, not only go vote yourself, but also bring two friends with you to vote, too. This election year, let’s make the “voluntary statistical sample” called voting really an accurate reading of the desires of “We, the People”!