The bandwidth of voting


So US citizen are going to elect a new president soon. One way of looking at voting is that it is the transmission of information from the people to the country. So we can measure the bandwidth of each voter to the government. The election for the US president is basically a choice between two candidates, as all other candidates have basically zero chance of getting through. This can be represented using 1 bit, transmitted every 126230400 second. The house of representative is also a two party choice happening every second year, so we have 1 bit transmitted every 63115200 second, and the same for the senate. For the US federal government, this gives us a total of 1 bit per 25246080 seconds, which translates to roughly 39.61 nano-bits per second.

4 thoughts on “The bandwidth of voting

  1. The bandwith is much higher, as the President has a whole team dedicated to getting and answering letters, has contact with other politicians, read newspapers and so on…

    On the other side, wich is the compression ratio of the vox populi? You can probably summarize the political opinions of the whole population in a book the size of an encyclopedia (the big ones), that would be roughly 1 Gbit of compressed text every 4 years, that’s 8 bits/s. How much of this is already contained in the President’s brain when he’s elected? Much more important are the selection of all this information, the will and power to ignore a part of it.

    Perhaps do systems with a good bandwith between population and government perform much better than ones with low bandwith (totalitarism: do not emit anything or you’re dead, and the government never listens; poor democracy: population emits, government does not listen; total democracy: population emits, government is parallized by all the contradictions, the lack of structure, the changing wills…)

  2. Well, i just voted for the various swiss votes of september the 24th, there were 3 yes/no questions for the federal level, this gives me 3 bits. This kind of voting takes place around four times a year, so just with that the bandwidth is around 12 bits a year, which gives us 380 nano-bits per second. While I can hardly pretend that swiss politics are very dynamic, the country does not look more paralysed than any other european country.

    As for letter to politicians, they can be misread or just ignored, or taking into account with bias (money comes to the mind), newspapers are written by journalists. As for what the president knows, for down to earth or technical stuff, the answer is usually: not much.

  3. It’s actually more complicated than that, just in the voting case, because the president isn’t elected by popular vote: the U.S. electoral system is designed like Congress, to equalize power somewhat between more and less populous states (with similarly counter-intuitive and usually maddening results). See the “electoral college” if you’re not familiar with it (I can’t assume you are–most Americans weren’t, prior to the 2000 elections).

    Even outside elections, it’s more nuanced. Much like winning the lottery, any specific individual’s story or interests are unlikely to have an impact, but someone wins. =) That’s why so many laws have people’s names attached, like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and it’s really the weight of many similar stories that lead to laws being passed. Consumer safety laws, sex offender registries, the DREAM Act if it ever passes, all represent many individuals’ stories emanating from single problems that the laws hope to solve.

    Anyway, I think your math is right, but your models are wrong. ;-)

  4. I was mostly talking about the bandwidth from the voters to the government, how this data is then combined into a decision is a different story. Outside of voting, things are complicated but generally there is no guarantee that one’s action, be it writing letters, picketing, riding in the wrong part of the bus or rioting will bring any sort of change to the government.

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