Voter competence under compulsory voting

by Micah on December 6, 2003

Following Brian’s post below about voting in Australia, I thought I’d mention a paper that raises some interesting questions about the relation between compusory voting and voter competence. Dan Ortiz has an article called “The Paradox of Mass Democracy,” printed in recent book called Rethinking the Vote (OUP), in which he argues that democracies are supposed to meet three conditions: (i) near universal suffrage, (ii) equality among those granted voting rights, and (iii) some degree of thoughtfulness among voters. The problem, as Ortiz argues, is that we can’t have it all:

The more we broaden political participation among equals, the less likely it is that individuals will deliberate about their political choices. The argument is that mass participation, combined with voter equality, drives down voter competence. The main reason for this effect is that individual votes matter less when more people vote. As partipation expands, rational voters therefore have less reason to educate themselves about their political choices.

Ortiz argues that the best way to deal with this trend is to neutralize the effects of voter incompetence through various structural reforms. To take a simple example, Jon Krosnick and some of his associates have shown that candidates listed first on a ballot receive a “name order bonus.” Even if this effect is minimal, say under 3%, it might still be sufficient to decide some elections. An easy solution is to rotate the names of candidates in order to cancel out the “noise” generated by unthoughtful voters. (States like Montana and Ohio already do this.) The problem with this solution, as Ortiz is aware, is that it leaves the underlying problem untouched. Rotating ballots doesn’t change the fact that lots of voters are still incompetent. Since Ortiz is skeptical about attempting to change voter behavior, he thinks that “shallow” strategies are the best—indeed, the only—way to overcome the bad effects of the democratic paradox he identifies.

But are there other solutions to the problem of voter competence that are not deeply coercive? To come back to Australia, does providing (positive or negative) incentives for voting improve voter competence? For example, how does Australia, which has compulsory voting, compare in voter competence with countries that lack incentives for voting? Does the “name order” effect hold at similar levels? (Or does Australia use rotational ballots to cancel this effect?) If increasing voter turnout drives down voter competence, other things being equal, one would expect a significant drop in voter competence.

How would paying people to vote (say, with some sort of tax credit or voucher) effect voter competence? Would people learn more about candidates—either because they feel obligated by law, or because candidates will invest more in the process of informing voters knowing that everyone must participate? Consider also the effect of incentives on two classes of voters—those who already vote, and those who would vote only under an incentive regime. First, would there be crowding out effects for people who would have voted without legal or financial incentives? In other words, would a monetary incentive for voting displace other possible motives—including those based on some sense of civic duty? And, second, how would voting incentives effect competency levels for the class of people who would not otherwise vote?

I’m not sure what to think of the “mass paradoxes” argument, in part because there seem to be lots of open questions about how voter competence is related to various ways of structuring voter participation. “Shallow” strategies may be a good way to neutralize unthoughtful voters, but perhaps these solutions can be supplemented with incentives that promote greater political deliberation.

{ 27 comments }

1

james 12.07.03 at 12:15 am

Interesting. Also makes you wonder whether low voter turnout is a good or a bad thing in terms of how educated a “decision” is made in an election, quite aside from the, probably negative, things such a turnout might be symptomatic of.

2

jason 12.07.03 at 12:17 am

i do believe that some level of competence is required to vote. it’s easy enough, if you can’t do it right, oh well.

3

Brian Weatherson 12.07.03 at 12:51 am

As far as I know we don’t have rotating ballots – the ballot order is just random. (I think it used to be alphabetical, which led to the parties deliberately pre-selecting candidates with names early in the alphabet.)

Having said that, I don’t believe the figure is anything like 3%. I was a scrutineer at plenty of elections and while there were some occasional ‘donkey votes’ (voting 1 for top candidate, 2 for second etc.) there weren’t that many. There probably weren’t 3% of the votes that didn’t follow one or other official party ticket, let alone the 1-2-3 order.

Also, since every seat has its ballot order selected at random, there is a sort of rotation around the country. That’s no consolation if you lose a marginal seat by a handful of donkey votes, but it does mitigate the effect.

4

Jeff 12.07.03 at 12:53 am

Even if voter turnout were only 1%, the chance of an individual vote making a difference would still be very close to 0. Unless the size of the population is very small, strategic voting is almost always pointless.

5

Ophelia Benson 12.07.03 at 1:38 am

Very interesting subject. I’ve been droning a bit about the paradoxes of democracy at B&W lately.

I wonder about a couple of things though.

“democracies are supposed to meet three conditions: (i) near universal suffrage, (ii) equality among those granted voting rights, and (iii) some degree of thoughtfulness among voters.”

What does “supposed” mean in that sentence? Supposed by whom? Expected? Or expected-and-ought? And anyway is that true? Hasn’t that always been one of the main objections to democracy (along with the one about They’ll vote away our property rights, of course), that most people aren’t knowledgeable enough to vote?

(So I’m asking, does that whole sentence mean this is how democracies ought to work, or this is how they are and have been expected to work?)

And this part –

“The more we broaden political participation among equals, the less likely it is that individuals will deliberate about their political choices. The argument is that mass participation, combined with voter equality, drives down voter competence. The main reason for this effect is that individual votes matter less when more people vote. As partipation expands, rational voters therefore have less reason to educate themselves about their political choices.”

But do people need a reason not to bother educating themselves? And why “rational voters”? Isn’t that the whole point – that not all voters are rational? Aren’t there a hell of a lot of people who just can’t be bothered, and couldn’t be even if their individual vote did matter?

6

Factory 12.07.03 at 2:34 am

Hmm.. I’d like to see some evidence to show that Australia has worse voters than countries where voting is not compulsary. IMHO non-compulsary voting most affects the vote by making it more partisan, which I don’t think is an improvement.

7

loren 12.07.03 at 3:45 am

Here’s a solution:

1. structure all decisions so that there is likely to be a correct or at least unanimously preferred outcome

2. try very hard to make sure each election or referenda is over only two candidates or options (not strictly necessary, but it can’t hurt)

3. make voting mandatory, but if some voters are obviously incompetent (i.e. proven track record of choosing the wrong answer), make them flip a coin to decide their vote.

4. have faith in the law of large numbers

… oh hey, is this thing on?

8

Michael C 12.07.03 at 5:07 am

Should we think low voter turnout a bad thing? It seems commonly assumed that it indicates a lack of civic engagement or a weak sense of civic duty. It may, but in the U.S. at least, with a) two relatively non-ideological parties that continally push one another toward the center (Bushism notwithstanding), and b) a fairly corrupt political system in which wealthy donors exercise huge influence over policy making, not voting may not reflect apathy, ignorance or lack of virtue. Why vote when it makes so little difference either individually or collectively?

9

Kaushik 12.07.03 at 6:22 am

Very interesting subject.

Here is another question. In India we have universal suffrage and some degree of thoughtfulness among voters, but a good deal of disparity among those granted voting rights.

People are largely voting along their clannish/casteist/regional/ religious lines. One of the byproducts of educational quota system / job reservations in India (India’s version of affirmative action, to put it simplistically) has been that the electorate started disintegrating along those sectarian lines. As the politicians started exploiting those divisions, the fissures have become increasingly acute and vice versa. Almost 2/3rd votes voluntarily (while there is abuse here and there, the electoral process largely works), people definitely consider the choices on their merit, but their thought process is often subverting (to my mind) the spirit of process.

10

John Borwick 12.07.03 at 6:58 am

College students often don’t vote because they think *too much*. I did voter recruitment for a while at a University; many people told me they didn’t know enough about the candidates.

Nobody considered that there is a mass of voters just checking the “vote party X” box.

Perhaps we could consider inside-the-voting-booth education materials, and other confidence-boosters, to help the “ill-informed” feel better about making a “good guess”.

11

drapetomaniac 12.07.03 at 10:48 am

One of the byproducts of educational quota system / job reservations in India (India’s version of affirmative action, to put it simplistically) has been that the electorate started disintegrating along those sectarian lines. As the politicians started exploiting those divisions, the fissures have become increasingly acute and vice versa.

This is an absolutely silly, ahistorical, *offensive* precis. The idea that *reservations* created *fissures* hardly withstands the barest scrutiny. See Jonathan Parry’s work, for example. On the contrary, caste discrimination triggered caste-based appeals (both progressive and not).

But to bring this back to the original subject, John Harriss has a good article (PDF) on the difficulties of mobilizing the most oppressed strata of voters as “competent” voters.

12

Chris Bertram 12.07.03 at 11:11 am

I’m really unconvinced by the claim that declining voter competence is because “individual votes matter less when more people vote”. After all, the probability of my vote making a difference to the outcome becomes pretty tiny once the numbers get over a few thousand! And people who are borderline incompetentent aren’t going to be very discriminating as between these very small probabilities.

Moreover, to judge them as incompetent we need, surely, some antecedent view of what they’re supposed to be doing. If they’re supposed to be taking an informed view about where the public interest lies then we’ve got quite a high competence threshhold to consider; but if they’re just supposed to be an indicator of when governments are bad — the shoe-pinching argument — then they don’t need to know much about anything. (Since I’m with the first of these options then I’d like to see a high level of competence).

And then there are the countervailing factors. As Brennan and Lomasky have argued, the low probability of making a difference in a large electorate can free voters to make expressive choices (can be good, can be bad).

13

T. Gracchus 12.07.03 at 3:11 pm

Some queries:
1. The claim that wide spread voter participation leads to less thought about votes is an empirical claim; is there evidence for this? How did Ortiz go about comparing the amount of time spent thinking about votes? And why would amount of time spent thinking about a vote matter very much?
2. What is a competent voter? Somebody who votes right, or somebody who spends enough time thinking before voting (how much is that?), or what?
Not having read the book, I am curious.

14

loren 12.07.03 at 4:07 pm

Chris: “people who are borderline incompetentent aren’t going to be very discriminating as between these very small probabilities.”

Relevant to Chris’s comments above, there are a few distinct senses of (in)competence:

1. being rock stupid, incurably malicious, bad at estimating likelihoods — that sort of thing.

2. being rationally ignorant, but cognitively able to think through our interests, reflect on moral distinctions and the public good, make decent use of evidence to estimate likelihoods

3. not voting strategically when that seems to be the only game in town

How might these distinctions matter? One possibility: “expressive” or “sincere” voting (i.e. voting for what we really believe or to make a point, rather than to get the best feasible outcome, given evidence and institutions) might be rational if our vote doesn’t objectively matter, and we’d be competent in senses 1 and 2, but not 3.

Or if, as much evidence suggests, we tend not to estimate likelihoods as decision and game theorists used to say we did, then we might still be rational in sense 3 (vote strategically given our limited abilities to evaluate the evidence at hand), but seem perilously close to failing in sense 1, and the jury would be out about sense 2.

Muddled thoughts (I have a fussy baby to go tend to, so am distracted), but this might make for some interesting reflections, dunno.

15

micah 12.07.03 at 5:41 pm

. . . to judge them as incompetent we need, surely, some antecedent view of what they’re supposed to be doing.

I tried to avoid saying anything about the meaning of “competent” in my initial post–other than to gesture vaguely at some level of voter deliberation. But I think people who vote for candidates simply because they are placed first on the ballot are clearly “incompetent” voters. Perhaps this sets a floor for incompetence? People who have no idea who the candidates are, who are voting randomly, or arbitrarily seem uncontroversially to fall within this category.

Another point regarding voter incompetence and rationality. On Ortiz’s view (which I’m not defending here), since it’s irrational for most people to vote (because their votes won’t “matter”), it might be rational to be an incompetent voter (i.e, one who votes arbitrarily)–especially where voting is compulsory (although Ortiz doesn’t draw this implication). In a noncompulsory system, if some voters get expressive benefit simply from the act of voting itself (rather than from the content of their votes), or if the act of voting is an expression of political membership or patriotism, or if it just makes a voter feel good, then, on Ortiz’s view, (some) voters have reason to vote independent of any view about political choices. They are rationally incompetent voters.

More generally, whatever you think “competent” means, there are lots of voters out there who will not meet the standard. If we’re interested in a more deliberative politics, I think we have to worry about how electoral systems (including campaign finance reforms) deal with this problem. Ortiz thinks that shallow solutions are the only option. I’d like to think otherwise, but the evidence is kind of depressing.

16

Katherine 12.07.03 at 6:19 pm

Economists say it’s irrational for anyone to vote, right? Maybe we should give just enough financial incentive to make it rational, or a wash, for the average person.

Or have something like California did for the recall, where you can vote at any precinct if you fill out an affidavit that you didn’t vote at your own precinct and stiff penalties for voting twice. (If this isn’t feasible now, technology should make it feasible in the near future.) My precinct is in the opposite direction of my job, so the whole process takes an hour and a half plus–and I live in a city.

Or free pie. People like free pie.

17

Chris Bertram 12.07.03 at 6:34 pm

_Economists say it’s irrational for anyone to vote, right?_

Hmm.

I remember a rational choice theorist trying to put “When is it rational to vote?” into an exam. The economist on the committee scrutinizing the draft papers volunteered – “On the day of the election?”

18

Russell L. Carter 12.07.03 at 7:47 pm

“The argument is that mass participation, combined with voter equality, drives down voter competence. The main reason for this effect is that individual votes matter less when more people vote.”

Divide the voting population into 12 partitions, with membership assigned by month of birth. Rotate per-election eligibility through the partitions.

19

Ken 12.07.03 at 8:06 pm

You don’t need to presume that increasing turnout causes incompetence in the individual voters. Simply reflect that competent voters will be more likely to vote than incompetent voters, so that if you boost turnout or (in the limiting case) make voting mandatory, the average competence of the voters goes down.

“It may, but in the U.S. at least, with a) two relatively non-ideological parties that continally push one another toward the center (Bushism notwithstanding), and b) a fairly corrupt political system in which wealthy donors exercise huge influence over policy making, not voting may not reflect apathy, ignorance or lack of virtue. Why vote when it makes so little difference either individually or collectively?”

Bushism is centrist – Bush has brought about regular increases in domestic spending, left regulation basically untouched, and backed a plan to add benefits to Medicare. Far right he ain’t.

Also, we’ve got one of the least corrupt policital systems in the world.

20

Jonathan Goldberg 12.07.03 at 11:17 pm

It was enscribed:

You don’t need to presume that increasing turnout causes incompetence in the individual voters. Simply reflect that competent voters will be more likely to vote than incompetent voters, so that if you boost turnout or (in the limiting case) make voting mandatory, the average competence of the voters goes down.

Actually, what happens in low-turnout elections is that those who vote are those with a strong ideological motivation. It’s doubtful that this means they also exhibit what I (at least) think of as competence. For instance, right-wing Christians have a high turnout; that’s why they’re so important in primaries.

21

Brett Bellmore 12.08.03 at 12:42 am

You want voter competence, require the voters to do something to prove that they’ve made some minimal effort to study their options: Make all the positions write in, with no straight ticket vote. You can’t vote for somebody unless you know their name.

Sure, the number of valid votes cast would be pathetically low, but “universal sufferage” doesn’t require that everybody, or even many people, vote. It simply requires that they be ABLE to vote, if they wish.

22

Brian Weatherson 12.08.03 at 1:32 am

Also, we’ve got one of the least corrupt policital systems in the world.

Do you have, like, any evidence for that?

For evidence the other direction from just what’s in the news: in most countries I’m familiar with, someone being offered $100K on the floor of the House to change their vote would be viewed as a major scandal, but here it’s apparently just one of those things.

23

Xavier 12.08.03 at 2:51 am

Brett: the problem with forcing people to write in the candidtate’s name is that it would give a huge advantage to candidates with easy to spell names. It would also be a big advantage for encumbants. I agree with the general principle of forcing voters to meet some standard of competence, but that’s not the way to do it.

24

Brett Bellmore 12.08.03 at 3:19 am

Ok, serious suggestion this time: Require everyone who wants to vote to register all over again for each election, fairly well in advance.

1. People who don’t think about voting until the last minute probably won’t be competent voters.

2. It helps with fighting absentee ballot fraud, too.

And I was quite serious about the eliminating straight party votes. Also helps with absentee ballot fraud… Or at least punishes it with repetative stress disorder.

25

muzick 12.09.03 at 1:39 am

Brett – I appreciate the idea of having each person reregister for each election… it gets the internalization process under way. I also like the idea of eliminating party voting. Here in Chicago one is forced to choose a party during the primary stages of a mayoral election, yet can cross party line when *actually choosing. It removes my ability to vote against the worse of two evils (wink). Perhaps “votes against” could be part of all elections… and I’ll bet you it would raise the participation level of “competent” voters, and not just in Chicago.

My idea is that an election results should be voided if less than 51% of the all the registered voters weren’t a positive vote (allowing for *negative votes). If not, try again… until one gets 51% positive affirmation. This would include a new reregistration for each try, raise the bar for “competency” and approach what was earlier referred to as “likelyhoods”. The extra full one percent is a little insurance against the other variables.

The inauguration date would have to be a bit flexible, but the elections would still be regular…. a bit of a trimming for not having the immediate full confidence of the voters.

26

Curtis Crawford 12.09.03 at 4:24 pm

To improve voter competence, what about adding to reregistration for every election a good multiple-choice exam to test one’s level of information concerning current public issues?

27

muzick 12.11.03 at 7:27 pm

It did seem as if these were material issues not ethereal or esthetic ones, but I guess that depends upon to which god mr. retsu is referring… this may require a vote, before we tread further here, to see which god will represent whom.

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