Sunday, December 23, 2007

Compulsory vs. Voluntary Voting

Apropos of a recent post on Economist’s View, I was going to explain that voter turnout has nothing to do with the free rider problem and that basic economic logic suggests that smaller turnouts are better than larger ones, but Radek (a.k.a. YouNotSneaky!) beat me to it.

In the end, though, I think Radek is wrong, because we need some political logic to supplement the economic logic. To begin with, economic logic will indicate that voting is, for the individual, irrational, unless it is mandatory. Therefore (here’s the political part), under a voluntary voting regime, only irrational people will vote. Do we really want government by the irrational, for the irrational, and of the irrational?

This may sound like a bit of sophistry, but I really think it has some relevance to the real world. Generally, people with strong opinions – opinions that are strong enough to make people do something irrational – will vote (plus maybe a few people whose only strong opinion is about their own civic duty). Radek seems to think this is good, because the people with strong opinions will be better informed and will have thought more about the choices. I’m willing to concede that point in some contexts – in particular, when we’re operating, as it were, close to the center of the distribution of policy possibilities. But when we get into the tails of the distribution, things get weird. The people with really crazy opinions – that Aryans are a master race, that Muslims must conquer the world and establish a Caliphate with worldwide dominion, etc. – are the ones who can most be counted on to do irrational things, like voting, to further their cause. If you have 60% voter turnout, one group of crazies can take over by converting 31% of the population. That’s a difficult task, but history suggests it’s sometimes possible. If you have compulsory voting, the crazies have the significantly more difficult (but, again, history suggests, not impossible) task of converting 51% (well, OK, maybe 48%, since there won’t be perfect compliance) of the population. Under normal circumstances, compulsory voting isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on election outcomes, because, let’s face it, the candidates usually aren’t all that different in the grand scheme of things. But in the occasional weird case where the election really matters a whole hell of a lot, compulsory voting reduces the chance that dangerously insane people can take over the country. That might be worth all the extra shoe leather.

Mark Thoma has a different take. He does seem to think that 100% voter turnout would be a good thing, but he thinks that compulsory voting would be too much of an imposition on people’s liberty. But I have a suggestion: Start with a compulsory voting regime. Enforce it by using fines. Rename the fines, and call them taxes. In the case of people who do vote, rename the absence of a fine, and call it a tax with an offsetting transfer, actually not so much a transfer as a payment for the service of voting. So now we have a lump sum tax offset in most cases by a payment for a public service performed by the individual. The individual is free to pay the tax and not do the service, but presumably we set the payment high enough that only a few people will choose that option. Does Mark still object?

[Update: Thinking about my last paragraph, I realize it has an obvious implication about whose political interests are served by compulsory voting: the interests of those whose shadow price of time is low – which is to say, poorer people (and perhaps retirees). If your shadow price of time is high, the penalty for not voting will be outweighed by the value of your time, so the voting requirement won’t change your behavior. If your shadow price of time is low, the penalty will outweigh the value of your time, and you’ll definitely vote. So the voting requirement will shift election outcomes toward the side of the these low-shadow-price people – presumably people who can’t get well-paid employment on the margin, which is to say, typically, poor people. Voluntary voting, on the other hand, is, relatively speaking, good for the political interests of corporate lawyers and investment bankers.]

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Blogger YouNotSneaky! said...

I noted the problem you describe in the post script where I mention the crazy guy in Iowa that bugged Edwards about OJ Simpson. Compulsory voting would dilute the crazy vote but obviously at a cost. So would just encouraging people to vote with say monetary incentives (and if voting does create a positive externality then it should be subsidized) which would bring in some of the borderline indifferent people. There's probably an interior solution to this.

Sun Dec 23, 10:54:00 PM EST  
Blogger Gabriel M said...

Some taxes are too much of an imposition on liberty. News at 11. :-)

Or, at least that's what I'm getting by your development of M. Thoma's idea.

In any case, what about those that dissent and disagree and what to boycott the entire system AS SUCH?

What if voting is morally wrong? -- Just saying.

Mon Dec 24, 03:52:00 AM EST  
Blogger Denis Drew said...

The best suggestion I saw in the SEIU's "Since Sliced Bread" contest was paying people $35 to vote. That would get the disenfranchised-feeling poor vote out for once. It would also accomplish what mandatory voting does without hitting anyone over the head with a fine.

Given the huge distortion in attention from politicians to people whose interests need more attention than those of most of ours but who vote less(in the poor get poorer fashion, incentivizing their voting habits would do much more to bring about fair play in society than any loss brought about by the policy-disinterested voter -- if I understand the main objection here ([( shh!; they will probably vote Democratic :)])

Next thing you want to try -- (don't recall if it was one of my contest ideas) -- is REVERSE campaign matching funds: matching any contribution to any candidate from taxpayer funds (buy our government back). This will keep incumbent congresspersons from spending half their time raising money and the other half satisfying those who gave -- incumbents will run from contributions.

Mon Dec 24, 10:49:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all very interesting, but it seems to me that compulsory voting is inconsistent with the "it's up to you" principle of democracy.

Mon Dec 24, 10:51:00 AM EST  
Blogger Karl Smith said...

To make the cost even more opaque you could simply institute a refundable voting credit, heck even a voting voucher that you get at the poll site. Then fund the thing through increases in regular taxes.

Of course then we need a stronger anti-multiple voting system - though the purple finger thing seemed to work and could conceivably become a symbol of pride. Especially if someone gave you $250 to get it.

Mon Dec 24, 03:25:00 PM EST  
Blogger Dan said...

I've been wondering about this "voting is not rational" logic for a long time. It just doesn't hold up. If everyone else votes, then of course the returns to voting do not justify the time spent voting. But obviously not voting is not a Nash equilibrium strategy: if no one votes then the returns to voting are quite high. So the optimal strategy involves non-trivial numbers of rational voters.

Tue Dec 25, 02:09:00 PM EST  
Blogger Laurent GUERBY said...

My take was pigovian:

Just call it a "tax on non voting" (you pay a fine if you don't vote) since as you noted there is a negative externality for others if you don't vote (loss of freedom in the long run).

Isn't compulsory voting basic Pigou?

Posted by: Laurent GUERBY | December 22, 2007 at 01:33 AM

Tue Dec 25, 04:16:00 PM EST  
Blogger reason said...

This is my argument - you stole it!

But the history with compulsory voting in Australia supports it. (The whole system in Australia is set up to be anti-extremist - except in the Senate but it has limited power.) It is the votes of the guys who think it is a toss-up who are the most important votes, because they keep it that way.

Tue Jan 08, 04:05:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few points :
1. You cannot tell which election will be weird beforehand and;
2. I disagree with Radek - people with strong opinions are often less informed than the general populace e.g. have a look at the responses @ freerepublic ;
3. Compulsory enrollment & voting help prevent fraud, since you expect everyone to be on the roll and turnout.

Wed Jan 09, 04:13:00 AM EST  
Blogger Andy McKenzie said...

All of this discussion over whether or not voting is irrational, and nobody proposes the simple idea of making it a national holiday? But surely the religious holidays are more important.

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strike force heroes 4 | red ball | slitherio
strike force heroes 4 | fireboy and watergirl 2
duck life | io games | tank trouble 2
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Fri Aug 05, 09:32:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous gun mayhem said...

This is the game so players feel very fierce , adventurous . You try to join and play this game , you will feel great like.
| tank trouble | learn to fly
gun mayhem | can your pet
| happ wheels

Fri Nov 25, 07:00:00 AM EST  

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