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Thompson: Just elections

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Thompson. 2002. Just elections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In Brief

Among other things, Thompson's contribution is to observe that a legitimate procedure is not necessarily a democratically just procedure. Thompson's example: the 2000 election of George Bush (unless you believe there was gross fraud) was legitimate, but not fully democratic (the guy with the most votes lost). If you're a pure proceduralist, if you say that legitimacy is all there is, then there is no standpoint from which to argue that Constitution A is better than Constitution B, or proportional representation is better than majority rule, that the electoral college should be junked, and so on (because only the procedure, and not its consequences, count).

Introductory Chapter

Main Argument

In the introductory chapter, Thompson lays out some principles commonly recruited to articulate electoral justice and analyzes the conflicts within these principles because he believes they have been neglected in the literature. Since these principles have conflict within them, no ready-made standard for electoral justice exists.

Electoral Justice

Electoral Justice is a species of procedural justices. Seeks fair terms of cooperation, a set of practices that all citizens could accept as equitable. Electoral Justice is distinct from electoral outcomes in that they are disagreements not about the positions of candidates or parties but about the procedures of the elections themselves. Electoral justice does not require a just outcome, nor does it guarantee that the elected will be the most just person, the procedures need only be just.

Approaches to electoral justice (conflicts within paradigms theorists often maximize)

  • Legitimacy: an election is legitimate to the extent that it is conducted in accordance to the rules established through the appropriate legal and political process. A legitimate election, though, may be unjust. While many democrats accepted Bush as legitimate in 2000, many thought the supreme court decision that put him there was unjust. Thus we can accept the results as legitimate but unjust.
  • Individual Rights: Ignores the fact the interactive effect of individual votes (exit poll results are reported individually but affect group participation as media begins to call the election--no option to vote in a system without exit polls)
  • Fair competition: focus on creating the conditions for electoral competition (sports metaphors, equal playing field, campaign finance reform). But distorts electoral justices. Fair competition in elections is not an end in itself. Too much competition may be distracting for legislators and may deprive government positions of experience.
  • Equality in electoral process: Equality is often impractical and also undesirable. Constitution demands equal numbers of voters in each district, but creative redistricting can be bad. Politically divides on racial lines. Instead of having more candidates sensitive to black issues, have fewer black congressman dedicated to particular issues.
  • Liberty in electoral process: the process should give citizens adequate opportunities to put an acceptable set of alternatives on the ballot, acquire information about the candidates and make their decisions without undue pressure.--not a maximizing issue, but optimizing. Too much info, too many candidates make citizens less informed.


Because citizens face choices in all of these categories, deliberation is key. While Rawls recognizes that the electoral process must satisfy basic principles of justice, that citizens have the right to "take part in political affairs" through elections that are "fair, free and regularly held", he says that the way these requirements are filled--the specific rules that govern elections--should be left to "political sociology". Thompson disagrees and will examine these principles in the chapters that follow.

Chapter: Equal Respect

Main Argument

The value of political equality is best conveyed by a principle of equal respect. The principle rests on the idea that the democratic process should respect all citizens as free and equal persons--the electoral process should provide citizens with equal opportunity to have their votes equally counted, unless respectful reasons justify unequal treatment. These reasons are respectful if they could be mutually acceptable to free and equal citizens, and thus only if they affirm or at least do not deny the equal civic standing of citizens. Inequalities that exist due to geographic variation are acceptable to the extent that they do not create or reinforce other unjustifiable social outcomes. Citizens have more control over where they live than who they are.

Vs Equality

Equal respect requires less than an equality standard. It does not demand citizens have an equal right to determine the outcome. Nor does it require electoral institutions grant citizens equal prospects of electoral success or that all votes have equal weight provided the unequal treatment can be justified.

Casting Votes

While there has been gradual enfranchisement over the years, two notable groups are left out--felons and resident aliens. Felons have been denied the right to vote because they have broken society's norms of conduct, but there is evidence that incarcerated felons are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. Resident aliens pay taxes, hold jobs, and even serve in the military. These are two explicit violations.

An implicit message of disrespect is when certain voting procedures like voter registration are shown to select against low income and low education voters. This violates equal respect because not only does it deny some citizens equal opportunities to participate, it also sends the message that their fellow citizens are indifferent to the persistence of this inequality and do not care enough to remove this barrier.

Republicans stopped removal of these barriers. They believed, despite evidence, that non voters would vote disproportionately for Democrats. Offered two justifications:

  • Removal will lead to voter fraud
  • Reforms would impose excessive costs on states

Other voting issues like early voting and motor-voter registration efforts have been found to also disproportionately advantage some groups over another. These are all mechanistic problems that asymmetrically affect voter turnout while being relatively universal in the opportunities they provide.


Registration practices and turnout patterns fall short of what equal respect requires. The principle rules out some practices like burdensome registration requirements and it looks with favor on others like national holidays for voting.