Watching the elections in Egypt this week and as one of the few Americans who are planning on voting next week in our off-year election, I am reminded of one of my favorite science fiction stories by the master Isaac Asimov called “Franchise. The story was written in the 1950s and takes place ironically in 2008 on election day. Computers and exiting polling have gotten so accurate in predicting the winner that only one person is needed to actually cast their vote.
The person is chosen by the all-powerful Multivac computer and asked a series of seemingly random questions that have nothing to do directly with politics or even addressing the candidates themselves. After this person casts his vote, the winners of the election are announced.
The story is interesting because the candidates still purchase TV ad time and appear at various campaign events, but it made me think those many years ago when I first read it how ridiculous our whole political process is. And no matter what party affiliation you might have at the moment, you probably agree that things could be improved. Though I am not sure that a Multivac automating the voting process as Asimov foretold would be much of an improvement.
It does seem as if the computers, or at least the predictive process, has taken a front seat to the actual plebiscite itself. We limit the predictions by the networks until after the polls close in each time zone, with the curious result that at the top of each hour on election night there is a rash of races that have been called by each network’s computers. Some of these predictions proved spectacularly wrong, as was the case of Florida during the 2000 election. All that matters is what is produced for our viewing pleasure.
In Asimov’s story, Norman, our “typical” voter, has a conflict. He has to tell the truth (Multivac of course monitors his bio-signs to ensure that he isn’t lying). He is physically ill the night before the election, realizing his burden is large. His family is terrified, because police surrounds his house. This is to ensure that he isn’t harmed on the way to the polling place, where he can discharge his civic duty.
Now, embarrassingly among modern democracies, we Yanks are at the very bottom of voter turnout. Wikipedia lists us below 50% here. There are some countries, such as Australia and Brazil, where voting is compulsory. Austria and Italy, where it isn’t, have better than 90% turnout rates. And given the number of governments in Italy, they vote fairly often too.
So think about the Egyptians who are voting for the first time in their lives this week and if you aren’t yet registered to vote, take some time to do so. Consider yourself fortunate that Norman and the Multivac haven’t replaced you quite yet.
And you can find Franchise in a variety of short story collections if you want to give it a read.