Ridiculous Myth Of democracy: you Kidding Me

How a Bizarre Massachusetts Election Explains the Brexit Chaos, from NYT, opinion
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament
In order to give you our best sense of this week’s Brexit chaos and where it’s headed, we want to first tell you about an absolutely whackadoo election this week in little Massachusetts town called Fall River.
We promise this will make sense.
Fall River’s saga began in October, when its 26-year-old mayor, Jasiel Correia, was arrested on charges of defrauding investors and falsifying tax returns. He had raised funding to develop a marketing app called SnoOwl but, according to prosecutors, instead spent $230,000 of investors’ money on jewelry, clothes, a Mercedes and his successful mayoral campaign.
Mr. Correia contested the charges and refused to step down. So some citizens of Fall River got enough signatures to force a recall election, which was held on Tuesday.
Mr. Correia received an absolute walloping in the recall election. About 61 percent voted to remove him from office. Only 4,911 people, or 38 percent of turnout, voted to keep him in office. It was a clear popular mandate.
But there was a twist in the results. The ballot had two questions: one on whether to recall Mr. Correia and another on whom to replace him with. Five people ran to fill the mayor’s seat — but Mr. Correia was one of them.
It might seem like the height of youthful hubris that a 20-something mayor under federal indictment would run for re-election amid a recall vote.
It turned out that, whether he knew it or not, Mr. Correia was onto something. He received 4,808 votes in the mayoral race, almost the exact same number he’d gotten in the recall. But the other four candidates split the remaining vote. His 38 percent support was enough to put him in first.
Yes, that’s right: The same election that removed Mr. Correia by a nearly two-to-one margin also returned him to office.
Democracy — there’s no easy way to say this — can be a ridiculous system sometimes.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
Part of what’s confounding Britain’s many votes this week over how or when to leave the European Union is that, as in Fall River, British governance is shaped by two different elections that produced two different results.
The first of those elections, the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union, recorded a slight majority of voters choosing to leave and a slight minority choosing to stay.
The second, a general election held in 2017, muddied that mandate and deepened divisions over what sort of Brexit to have.
The ruling Conservative party lost some seats, which undercut perceptions that the party had a mandate to follow the vision of its leader, Prime Minister Theresa May. The opposition Labour party gained seats, but did not win a majority and did not have a clear Brexit position.
So, on the one hand, British lawmakers believe that, because of the 2016 vote, they have a mandate to make Brexit happen. But the 2017 vote left the Conservatives too weak and disunited to actually do that because there is no clear mandate for a specific plan or for following or rejecting the prime minister’s leadership.
That muddle is coming through in this week’s series of Parliamentary votes.
Just as British voters did not express a clear majority for any specific vision in the 2017 general election, British lawmakers cannot form a clear majority for any specific plan. Mrs. May’s plan failed by a triple-digit margin when it was put to a vote. A “no-deal” Brexit, favored by hard-liners, is also expected to fail, as of the time of this writing. And there is not enough of a majority to push through other options, like a second referendum or simply revoking Brexit.
Capturing public sentiment and converting it into governance is a messy, imperfect science. The way that you design an election can shape the outcome just as much as the actual choices made by voters, and sometimes more.
That’s why the first half of the Fall River ballot resulted in a clear message from the public that Mr. Correia should leave, and the second half conveyed just as clearly that he should remain.
Democracy functions on the notion that any election outcome reflects the will of the people and therefore must be respected. But as Fall River shows, that notion is, to some degree, a myth. Elections test only what you design them to test.
And tests of public sentiment becomes less scientific — and, frankly, less real — the more complex the question.
Fall River tried to ask its voters “Do you want to remove the mayor and, if so, whom do you want to replace him with?” But that turned out to be too complicated a questiont. The result, returning Mr. Correia to office, clearly does not actually reflect public desire, since most people voted to recall him over his federal charges.
Britain has been trying to test a far, far more complex question: “Do you want to leave the European Union and, if so, under what sort of timeline and terms?”
The 2016 referendum corralled all of the many different options for Brexit — soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Norway-style Brexit, Canada-style Brexit, Brexit under only certain conditions, Brexit under any conditions — under a single option: “leave.”
As a result, the most popular option, to remain in the European Union, narrowly lost. Much as Mr. Correia lost the recall despite being the most popular candidate.
The 2017 general election was framed by both major parties as testing whether voters agreed with Mrs. May’s plans for a soft Brexit and her handling of negotiations. The results, returning far fewer votes than she’d hoped for, suggested that she had lost support.
In a world where we acknowledge that elections can be imperfect and arbitrary tests of public sentiment, we might look at those two votes and conclude that there is no majority consensus for any single Brexit. And that the most popular option is to remain in the European Union, which polls support.
But that is not the world that we live in. In this world, the mythology of elections says that they are perfect, infallible expressions of the people’s will, and therefore that their results must be obeyed.
In Britain, that mythology has lawmakers bending over backward to follow a public mandate that doesn’t actually exist — and, because it doesn’t exist, means those lawmakers don’t have the votes to put any specific plan into action.
So Parliament is deadlocked and, unable to pass anything, drifting toward a no-deal Brexit, which is both the least-popular option and one that is expected to devastate the British economy. That strikes us as an awfully high cost for maintaining the myth of perfect election, but it’s the choice being made.

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