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Western electoral theories may need alteration

Author  :  He Junzhi     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-12-27

In 2016, more than 60 countries and regions held elections or referendums, the most notable of which include the Brexit referendum, the Japanese legislature elections, Australia’s legislative assembly election, the US presidential elections, Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform and more.

Electoral theories have made great progress in the past 30 years in the international community, especially research on voting or electoral systems as well as on campaign technologies. Some Western scholars have not only expounded upon the mechanisms behind majority rule and proportional representation but also devised various formulas based on criteria included in election systems. Some scholars even believe that a country’s election results can be predicted based on its social structure, form of government and election mode.

Also, now that the election consultant has emerged as a profession in some countries, the development of election-related disciplines, such as polling and TV campaign techniques, has been carried out in various dimensions. Masters of strategies exert all their tricks on the campaign trail, which range from smear tactics to whitewashing.

However, recent cases have really astounded these experts. The outcome of the UK general election 2015 showed an astonishing discrepancy between opinion polls and the final results. Later analysis more or less presented it as an isolated case. Nevertheless, the same discrepancy appeared in the US presidential election again and changed their view.

Then theorists admitted that it is not convincing to simply attribute this phenomenon to the failure of using polls to predict the election. Among many interpretations, one reason that is widely recognized is that there is a disparity between poll results provided by mainstream media and public preferences shown on some Internet media. Some predictions by the Internet media, which were regarded as less reliable by the mainstream media, turned out to be closer to the final outcome.

One explanation from the perspective of methodology is that traditional polling can no longer capture the varied and ever-changing tendencies of voters, while the Internet media can accommodate a vast quantity of information.

Failure to integrate big data processing techniques with traditional methods of sampling will inevitably lead to a distortion of the final result. However, some Western scholars offer another interpretation. They suggested one possible reason is that the mainstream media and also the poll results reflect the values of the so-called elite class, while election outcome gives public preference because it depends on the quantity of votes.

This phenomenon shows that the public in Western countries are already aware of the polarization in society in both wealth distribution and values. Electoral theory researchers hold that the inequality and conflicts of values in Western countries brought about by deepening development have only just begun, and it is indeed a challenge to traditional election theories.

To address this new situation, the concept of deliberative democracy has emerged in recent years. It provides an alternative to traditional representative democracy, which regards voting as the primary aspect of elections. In its place, public direct deliberation and non-voting representative deliberation provide an alternative mode.

Some theorists have even attempted to replace traditional election methods with these two methods. In fact, both election theories and election technique studies found that voting should be the last choice for decision-making. It should be used only when all other alternatives, like discussion, deliberation, debate and retrospection cannot reach a consensus, and also all parties are reluctant to accept a coercive solution. Therefore, we are entering an age with diversified election theories. And we should do more research on deliberative democracy.


He Junzhi is a professor from the School of Governance at Sun Yat-sen University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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