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Elections, elections, elections – and education

Our presidential elections are only weeks away. Are you ready to vote?

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Given that this article is being published just weeks before one of the most interesting and exciting presidential elections in our political history, it is only appropriate that we dedicate it to the electoral process. Our national elections are always an interesting exercise in data collection, data aggregation, analysis, algorithmic applications, basic arithmetic and, of course, predictive modeling. Every pundit in the country goes about doing his or her absolute best to extract intelligence from the polls, the demographics and past election results to try to predict the outcome as early as possible. And after it’s over, we return to the data, to slice, dice and analyze the numbers in order to obtain lessons learned and do better the next time around.

While the basic concept of an election tends to imply that there is a relationship between winning and getting the most votes, every country has its own set of rules and regulations that govern elections and determine exactly who wins or loses. In many nations, it is a simple question of who gets the majority of the popular vote. In others, in order to address the fractioning of votes due to the large number of candidates, election officials resort to requiring the largest pluralities to then contest each other through a system of runoffs until just two candidates remain. In the U.S., as in certain other countries, we rely on the process of having an “electoral college” be the ultimate arbiter in determining who gets to be president or vice president. And this in itself demands some added explanation.

Because of the delicate set of negotiations that gave rise to the United States of America, our confederation demanded certain safeguards to protect the small states from the big states, the Southern states from the Northern ones, and the states that were primarily rural from those that had burgeoning urban centers and an emerging industrial base. Ultimately, the concept of an electoral college arose where each state had a number of “electors” allocated depending primarily on population but assuring that each state had a minimum of three. The electoral college currently has 538 electors. That means that each state has an elector for each senator and another for each congressional district in the state, hence proportional to its population compared to the rest of the country. (This follows the discussion on apportionment which was the topic of an earlier article, Business Intelligence and Apportionment.)

In any case, these electors, who in turn are nominated according to a diverse set of rules that vary by state, are the intermediaries between the people and the nation’s presidency and vice presidency. In fact, electors are simply individuals committed to casting their votes for specific candidates; though there is mostly no recourse should electors change their minds, and their votes. This has happened occasionally, but never with any significant consequences in terms of changing the outcome of an election. For a person to be elected president, he/she must win a majority of the votes in the electoral college (at least 270). Should no candidate reach this number, the results go to the house of representatives for resolution in the case of the presidency, and to the senate for the vice president.

Returning to our earlier comments on elections in general, we can see that our unique approach can result in having a president who has actually obtained a smaller number of popular votes than an opponent, because he or she won the elections in the electoral college. This has actually taken place three times during our republican history and would have otherwise resulted in Samuel Tilden and Al Gore joining the ranks of our presidents while also eliminating that quirky fact of Grover Cleveland being both our 22nd and 24th president since he lost in the electoral college in 1888 in spite of having beaten Benjamin Harrison in popular votes.

As we can appreciate, analyzing, counting, calculating, predicting and estimating (i.e., business intelligence) are at the heart of elections. And we have not yet even mentioned turnout. Why is turnout important? Because in the United States, there is a very significant difference between who is eligible to vote and the people that actually do. First, let’s talk about eligibility or suffrage, the right to vote.

While suffrage in the United States has a spotty early history – you had to be a land owning white male to vote in the first few years of the Republic – ours has also been a history of toppling racial, gender and social barriers and embracing universal enfranchisement. While eligibility is determined by the states, there are a number of constitutional guarantees that establish that to vote, you must be a citizen, at least eighteen years old, and that you cannot be denied the right to vote because of your race, color or gender.

But who actually votes is a totally different issue. Voting is not mandated by law; hence, it is a voluntary activity. Candidates must thus encourage their followers to vote, and they must organize campaigns to accomplish this. Because money is an essential component of these campaigns – especially in the days of mass media – the Federal Election Commission was created by congress in 1964 to regulate campaign financing, and this has continued to be a very controversial topic through the present. The naked fact is that voter turnout in the United States is a significant problem.

Measured as the percent of eligible voters to those who actually vote, turnout has hovered around 50% for presidential elections in the U.S. over the last few decades, and has been as low as 36.4% in 1996 and 1988. This is truly deplorable. By not voting, a citizen is abdicating the most important act they can exercise in a republican democracy: choosing their representatives and leaders. As a nation, a large voter turnout is desirable in order to provide legitimacy to a mandate and to participate in articulating the “will of the people.”

Voter turnout has been particularly low among the young. In the 1996 elections, less than one out of three Americans between the ages of 18 and 20 who were eligible to vote actually did so. In mid-term elections, turnout often falls below 20%. And this leads us to the need for education.

If citizens don’t vote, they have little recourse to complain about how the country is run and how its laws are made. But voters also need to be educated so they can be in a better position to realize for whom and why they cast their votes. Over the course of the last century, we have seen voters elect the likes of Adolf Hitler to office as a result of not knowing or understanding who they were voting for or abdicating their votes through apathy or ignorance. Today, there are many electoral educational projects aimed at our youth; but the biggest and oldest is the National Student/Parent Mock Election. (I have been assisting this effort for the last 20 years and am on the board of directors of the NSPME. This year, the National Student/Parent Mock Election will take place nationwide on October 30, 2008, and the USA Today headquarters in McLean, VA, will host “Election Central.”)

On their site, the NSPME reminds us that currently, there are over 70 million Americans under the age of 18. What can we do to make them aware of the importance of voting so that when they become of age they exercise that right, and do so intelligently? The NSPME also reminds us that our schools don’t do a very good job of giving young people the information needed to vote; and as a result, only 28% of young people vote because they believe it is their civic duty. Furthermore, many youth are learning not to vote from their parents.

This is why the NSPME promotes and runs mock elections as educational exercises in schools around the nation the week before the real one. Millions of kids will vote for the same candidates their parents hopefully will. And they will learn from their teachers how to do it and why it’s important. But they will also learn how to look at issues and determine what the candidates believe about each one, and they are encouraged to ask questions of the candidates and demand their rights as voters.

Maybe on the day you are reading this article and realizing how interlinked business intelligence and elections are, you will also be getting ready to vote or to encourage your children to vote (if they are of voting age) or to learn to vote through the mock election. There is nothing more important to the health of our democracy.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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