Mass Democracy Fails in Iran
The protests about the election for president of Iran do not just indicate a problem with the vote count, but more deeply a problem with mass voting.
June 22, 2009
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

The protests about the election for president of Iran, and the violent response of the government, do not just indicate a problem with the vote count, but more deeply a problem with mass voting. Among its many flaws, mass voting is vulnerable to miscounting and election fraud.

If the government is in charge of counting the ballots, there is a temptation to skew the results in favor of the ruling party. This has occurred worldwide. Election results have been suspect in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries. As we know, in the USA, the Florida vote count for president in 2000 was controversial, and there were questions about the vote count in Ohio in 2004.

Mass democracy creates a need to use the mass media to get attention and create a favorable image, but these messages can be misleading. But there is no way in mass voting for the typical voters to know the candidates personally, and there is little incentive for most voters to become well informed.

The opposite of large-group voting is small-group voting. People can know their candidates personally if they vote in a tiny group, such as in a neighborhood of about a thousand persons. Suppose in Iran the people only voted for a neighborhood council. There would still be factions and parties, but one could personally question and know the candidates. There would be candidate forums, and it would be inexpensive to distribute literature. Money could still be spent, but it could be effectively countered with personal communication.

The neighborhood council elections would use paper ballots, not machines. All machine voting is vulnerable to manipulation, and it is impossible to have a perfect test of any machine vote counting. With paper ballots, the counting would take place in public, and could be witnessed by anybody. The voting itself could be witnessed, as anybody could watch the voters go into booths and place the ballots into a box. As soon as voting ends, the ballots get counted. Thus election fraud could be minimized.

Even if, despite these safeguards, voting fraud takes place, it would be within one neighborhood district. Massive systemic fraud would be difficult to carry out if people everywhere are watching. In contrast, when the ballots are taken to a government office with restricted access, outsiders can’t know how the ballots are being counted. If the votes are counted by machine, as is common in the USA, the counting is inherently secret. Nobody knows for sure what is in the black box.

Another type of election fraud is ballot stuffing. The ruling party puts in fake ballots, or has its agents adopt the names of dead people for fraudulent voting. In the neighborhood council vote, the locals can know who really lives there, and the representatives of the parties could double check the signatures and identifications, if they wish.

Since in small-group voting, the people only elect a neighborhood council, the next higher level of government, such as a city council, is elected by the representatives of the neighborhood councils. The city councils then elect the provincial legislature, and the provincial or state legislatures elect the national parliament or congress. The national representatives then elect the president of the country.

When the people vote for a president, this generates hero worship and demagogues. With the economy in shambles and the people suffering from crime, pollution, and restrictions on speech and religion, people look to their favorite candidate as a messiah, but it is impossible for any leader to achieve salvation, because the system of mass democracy is inherently dysfunctional.

With small-group voting, there is much less of a tendency to turn party leaders into gods. National salvation becomes rooted in the genuine democratic process rather than being thrust on the goodwill and competence of a hero leader. If the chief turns out to be not so great, the parliament can dismiss him and elect somebody else, without the trauma of impeachment.

The Persians made a big mistake when they a century ago copied the voting model of the United States and western Europe, of having the chiefs of state elected by the people. It would have been better to have copied the anarcho-socialist model initially favored by the Bolsheviks of old Russia. The term “soviet” means “council” in Russian. The original model of the Russian socialist was “All power to the soviets!” The Soviet Union was to be a union of councils.

Of course in practice, the Communist Party became the ruler in the Soviet Union. The people did elect the representatives to the soviets, but the candidates had to be members of the Communist Party. For a true small-group democracy, there should be no restriction on who becomes a candidate other than being an adult member of the community.

If Iran practiced small-group democracy, the elections results would achieve the aim of democracy, social peace. But then the current chiefs would quite possibly lose their positions. That is why Iran will continue with mass democracy. But what is the excuse in the USA, UK, and other long-established democracies? Why do we continue with the massive failures of mass democracy?

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., (May 11, 1946 — June 5, 2021) was an economist who wrote weekly editorials for since 1997. Foldvary’s commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary’s areas of research included public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.