Saturday 9 January 2021

Politics Would Be Less Crazy If Voting Were Compulsory

Democracies around the world are suffering paroxysms of populist rage. Obviously this has many contributing causes and individuals, from rising inequality to social media to political entrepreneurs like Trump. But here is one policy that might go some way to restoring normal functioning: Make voting compulsory.

Before politicians can do anything else, they must win election by getting  more votes than their opponents. This is supposed to ensure that only those politicians whose ideas and values are most agreeable to the most people have the chance to rule. One might naively suppose that democratic competitions would therefore focus on clearly communicating those ideas and values so that the voters can tell which candidate they most prefer. In practise that is not what happens. This is because voters must choose not only which politician they prefer but also whether to formally register that preference by voting. The politicians' challenge is that  while forming a political opinion is effectively free, voting is a mildly inconvenient task that it is entirely rational for most people not to bother with.

There are obvious costs to voting. You have to flaff around with paperwork to register. You have to figure out where your polling station is and take time out of a workday to visit it, and then stand around bored and uncomfortable waiting your turn. (Postal ballots involve lots of flaff too, although less standing around in the cold.) Although in the grand scale of things these are relatively minor inconveniences, they are nevertheless real. Rational individuals therefore won't bother to vote unless there is some benefit to them that outweighs these costs. 

However, any such benefit is elusive because voting is not an effective means to achieve a political goal. This is not because the outcomes of elections don't matter to us. Rather, it is because those outcomes are independent of how - or whether - any particular individual votes. When we decide to order a pizza there is a straightforwardly direct connection between our actions and the outcome of having a pizza to eat. If we order pizza we will (very probably) get one; if we don't order one, no pizza will arrive. There is no such direct connection between your voting choice between political candidates and which one wins the election. This is because the influence of your vote depends on two factors not in your control: 

  1. how many other people vote for your preferred candidate; and 
  2. how many people vote for other candidates. 

If lots more people vote for a different candidate, then obviously your vote didn't achieve anything, and therefore had no benefit (only costs). But if lots more people vote for your preferred candidate and that candidate therefore wins, your vote still didn't achieve anything because they would have won even if you hadn't bothered to vote. Of course, before the election it isn't possible to know who will win and by how much. Nevertheless, one can have confidence that there is a vanishingly small possibility that a single person's vote one way or another could ever determine the outcome of an election. Even in the very close state races that characterised the recent US election, the winning margin was never 1 vote. Moreover, as the forensic analysis of those US elections shows, the error rate built into voting and vote-counting systems is far greater than 1. 

This structural 'irrationality' of voting explains why so many citizens of democracies don't bother to vote, even if they have a preference for one party over another. It also makes clear the challenge that democratic politicians face when they compete to 'get more votes' and the form that modern politics takes in response. In a world where the inconvenience of voting deters people from bothering, politicians have three distinct strategies for winning election.

  1. Persuade more of the people who do vote to prefer you 
  2. Persuade more of the people who prefer you to vote 
  3. Persuade fewer of the people who prefer your opponents to vote

Option 1 is the democratic ideal. It pushes politicians to publicly explain their policy ideas and values and why they are superior to their opponents', for example in debates and manifestos. You may have noticed that although this still goes on, and is still a mainstay of the political analysis of intellectualist media, it has become little more than a sideshow. (In 2020 America's Republican Party didn't even bother publishing a manifesto of what their policies and priorities would be if re-elected.) That is because the other strategies dominate and undermine the democratic ideal.

Option 3 is about increasing the cost of voting for people who are more likely to prefer your opponents, in order to deter them from officially registering that preference and having it counted. Suppose for example that people from a certain area, or a certain ethnic group, or age, or profession are known to be more likely to vote for your opponent, even by a trifling ratio of 55:45. Then the logical thing to do if you want to win the election is to pass election laws that will reduce the number of people from that group who will vote by artificially raising its inconvenience to them. For example, by requiring certain kinds of ID, or preventing university students from voting on campus, or reducing the number of polling stations in opposition areas so their supporters have to queue for longer. Of course this is completely anti-democratic since it attempts to reduce the number of people whose opinion is counted and also, -quite deliberately and cynically - to engineer electoral outcomes that misrepresent the relative popularity of the political options. Nevertheless it is the entirely logical outcome of democratic competition wherever voting has costs and politicians can manipulate those costs via electoral rules. 

Option 2 is the most relevant, however, for understanding the craziness of modern democratic politics. Politicians have to find a way to persuade their supporters (but not those of their opponents!) to go to the trouble of registering that preference as a vote. Various tactics are employed to this goal. But it turns out that what works best are fantasy stories of good vs evil, the crazier the better. Unfortunately those fantasies have a way of taking over the political process so that craziness itself comes to rule.

Politicians ask themselves, how can I get my supporters into the polling booth? Because individual votes don't matter, it doesn't make sense to ask them to vote in order to achieve certain positive outcomes, like my cool idea for a minimum wage. Therefore I need to come up with some non-instrumental benefits for voting - some immaterial psychic benefits - sufficient to outweigh its costs.

Such psychic benefits explain why a substantial minority of people do bother to vote, if not to get things done. For example, some people seem to enjoy thinking of themselves as good citizens who fulfil their civic duty (or would feel bad if they didn't, which comes to the same thing). Others may feel a peculiar pleasure at having their view on who should rule taken seriously by being counted. However, only 15-20% of citizens seem sufficiently motivated by these to vote in every election merely because it is an election, i.e. even in local ones for minor offices. Moreover, this background level of civic pleasure at taking part in elections is not much help to politicians seeking election. They know there are plenty more people who would vote for them if they were confronted with the choice in a polling booth, but who can't be bothered to go to a polling booth to say so officially. Politicians need to offer their supporters (but not those of their opponents!) some special psychic pay off sufficient to offset the inconvenience of voting.

It turns out that the easiest way to persuade people of the benefits of voting is to tell them a fantasy story of heroes and villains, in which the good guys (your tribe) are locked in a struggle against the bad guys who want to destroy everything that is true, beautiful, and good. The excitement of participating in such a battle between good and evil by casting a vote can be enough to motivate many people to vote, while distracting them from the fact that their vote doesn't literally matter. They are LARPing as foot soldiers in the army of the righteous.

The political logic of competitive elections makes resort to this simple good vs evil story almost inevitable. Among other things it explains why most political advertising is negative (in fantasy there is always more to say about hell than heaven), and also why there is so much of it (so that voters can't avoid it). More importantly, it has an inbuilt ratchet that drives democratic politics to increasingly crazy and ferocious partisanship. This is because, like each battle in the Avengers movie franchise, every election must be portrayed as supremely important and therefore - somehow, impossibly - more crucial to the fate of human history than the last election that was also supremely important. If one party unilaterally slackens off on the hysterical millenarianism - as the Democrats did for the 2010 midterms - their voters won't turn out and the other side will win bigly.

Some people seem to manage to tune out the relentless end of the world histrionics and get on with their lives without thinking any more about politics than they would about the weather. (Even during the extraordinarily fevered 2020 US general election 1/3 of eligible voters didn't bother.) However, a small minority find the LARPing so rewarding that they adopt it as part of their identity and make it a year-round hobby. Unfortunately these are the people - almost the only people - who bother to turn out to vote in the primary elections that choose which politicians, and thus which ideas, will be offered to the entire electorate. Naturally they choose those politicians who are the best fit with the fantasy of a final battle between good and evil. 

What was once a strategy used by politicians to get elected by manipulating their supporters' emotions ends up selecting the craziest of their supporters and empowering them to deselect any politician who doesn't echo their craziness. The logic of political competition thus drives a competition to goad supporters to the polls that comes to dominate and overwhelm the ideal of democracy as a competition between ideas. This is how well-established democracies filled with highly educated and mostly sane people end up electing populists like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. It is also how you end up with political LARPers who take the fantasy so seriously that they refuse to accept that a mere counting up of votes could defeat them and let evil reign. If you believed the presidential election was a final battle for the soul of America, would you meekly accept that the Antichrist had won just because someone on the news said someone in Wisconsin had counted more bits of paper saying so?

What needs to be done is clear: Options 2 and 3 need to be removed from the politician's playbook so that they will focus on Option 1, the contest of ideas. There is also an obvious way to achieve this: Politicians need to be relieved of the burden of persuading citizens to vote. That means reducing the costs of voting (automatic registration; polling days as national holidays; less cumbersome systems for online/postal voting; etc). It also means increasing the cost of not-voting by imposing a small fine (of say $50). When the only question voters face is whose ideas they prefer, politicians will naturally focus on developing and debating real world ideas rather than fantasies, and democracy can live up to its moral and practical potential.

Naturally compulsory voting would not solve all the challenges facing modern democracies. For example, there remains the problem that, while it costs nothing to form a political opinion, forming a well-founded opinion is expensive and unrewarding in the same way as the act of voting. But it does directly address a very significant source of democratic failure. If one looks at Australia, the country where compulsory voting seems most consistently enforced, one does not see a paradise of rational and inclusive politics. However, it does exercise a centripetal force that pulls Australian political parties inexorably towards the moderate centre ground where the swing voters corralled to the polls by threat of a fine are waiting to make their decision. 

The overall idea of this short essay is that although the functioning of democracy is determined by the rules of the democratic marketplace it is not defined by them. We should not assess the functioning of democracy by whether some particular set of rules is followed, but vice versa. If we keep getting toxic outcomes, we should rethink the rules we have been using. Democratic politics doesn't have to be this crazy. 

Note: This idea comes round every few years. The source of the picture I used is William Galston's 2011 NY Times op-ed in support of the same policy

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Leiden University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.