Home » Analysis » Anemic Turnout and Civic Engagement

Anemic Turnout and Civic Engagement

When the dust settled after the most recent Texas party primaries, newspaper editorial writers across the state were able to dust off and wheel out their evergreen essays about the deplorable lack of voter turnout.

As Professor Rick Hasan has noted, a partisan split does show up in arguments over boosting voter turnout. To grossly simplify the philosophical positions, conservatives tend to argue that low turnout isn’t really a problem, and might actually be a good thing (because boosting turnout might encourage the wrong element to vote for the wrong kinds of candidates and policies, thereby derailing civilization).  Liberals, on the other hand, tend to argue that low turnout is a problem (because the vast majority of the public have no say in the way that they are governed, thereby derailing civilization), and that boosting turnout might finally bring about some simple decency and policy balance to our dangerously unresponsive plutocratic government institutions.

In reality, the philosophical split is probably less partisan than it appears, because both those who favor voting by a small, professional elite, and those who favor voting by a large, representative cross section of society would probably agree that independent of turnout, elections should end with the right person or policy being chosen.

Right now, I’m taking a fascinating online Coursera course (A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior) being taught by Duke University’s Dan Ariely, a leading figure in the trendy world of behavioral economics and choice architecture design. These are fields of social science inquiry that basically didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate, but that arose to challenge long-held assumptions about rationality and choice. Professor Ariely’s research interests are broad and difficult to summarize in a brief way, but at the risk of being too flip and general, I would say that the founding hypotheses of behavioral economics are:

(1) The thousands of discretionary choices we make every day are not guided by some sort of objective optimality; none of our behaviors are rational in the sense of being objectively correct. We act in reaction to a complex mixture of emotional and sensory biases, environmental cues, neurological and endocrine short-cuts, make-works, and work-arounds, and so on.

As one could say with respect to lots of complex biological systems (our cobbled-together bipedalism, our barely adequate accommodations for giving birth to big-headed kids, our badly-engineered mammalian ears, our badly-engineered vertebrae, our “work-in-progress” bodies in general), the evolution of human behavior is the triumph of the low bidding contractor – our brains are only just as good as they minimally have to be in order to keep us alive and reproducing.

(2) The same neurological limitations that make us blind to the actual causes of our behavioral choices also make us very bad at recognizing our lack of rational agency.

(3) On the contrary, we are really good at overestimating our rationality, modeling rationality into our memories and interpretations of our own actions, and selectively editing our sensory evidence of reality for the sake of preserving our illusory capacity for reasoning.

So let me posit the following with respect to polities, nation-states, and the general conduct of human government: that we cannot presume that low or high voter turnout in any election is in any way correlated with the objective quality of the election outcome. Further, that there is no reason to believe that any particular voter or group of voters will vote in such a way as to promote their own or anyone else’s self-interest, even when they think that they are doing so.

The notion of having elections is a cultural artifact, and is useful to us to the extent that we accept the premise that having elections somehow works out for us over the long run.

You might assume from all this that I am a defeatist, or that my message is that we are irrational and therefore shouldn’t try to make the right decisions. This is not my view.

Yes, our mental constructions that lead us to one outcome or another are not built on logic or facts. But there really are better and worse outcomes, and our decisions (however we may arrive at them) are critically important. Therefore, we must engineer our elections so as to mitigate or subvert our biases, with the objective of forcing us to make good decisions whether we know it or not.

We already engage in this kind of engineering (or choice architecture, in the current social science parlance) in an ad hoc and non-systematic way.

Consider the ballot drawing. We tend to vote more for the first candidate on the ballot. It’s a crazy visual bias that accounts for a good 5% of the vote in any election (more or less). So as a sort of rough justice, we randomize the order of the candidate names in non-partisan elections. Tex. Elec. Code Section 52.094. Whoever is lucky enough to come out on top will get that magic 5% of the vote.

It’s an odd approach, given that the optimal solution would be to get rid of the magic 5% before the election ever begins. But it’s cheaper and easier than trying to figure out how to reverse the way our brains are wired.

And in another (and major) way, we take advantage of the visual bias when the election is a partisan one, because we gift the dominant political party (based on the most recent gubernatorial election) with the magic 5% in the November general election by listing that party’s candidates first in each race. Tex. Elec. Code Section 52.092.

We therefore more-or-less deliberately favor the more successful party in the general election, but not in local or primary elections. The mechanism for straight-party voting reinforces this bias by offering the voter a path of least resistance – to vote for all the candidates in the first listed party without having to make any other choices on a lengthy ballot. Tex. Elec. Code Section 52.071.

Ballots are fascinating cultural artifacts, because independent of the actual votes cast on them, they reflect irrational biases and both deliberate and unconscious manipulations of those biases. For example, we list the races in a descending geographic hierarchy that reflects our irrational tendency to view”big” elections as being more important that “little” elections.

Which is odd, when you think about it, because the more local the office, the more likely that the discretionary policies of that office will affect us immediately and directly. The President is important, but when was the last time the Office of the President of the United States stuck a parking ticket on your windshield?

Here’s a radical proposal for ballot reform. Imagine a ballot that looked like this:

General and Special Election – Saturday, November 9, 2080 [following the landmark reform in the mid-21st century shifting November general elections to the second Saturday of that month, to boost turnout].

BALLOT INSTRUCTIONS: Choose the offices and propositions that you would like to vote on from the issues and positions menu. After making your selections and composing your ballot, choose the candidates you would prefer for each office, and your position on each proposition.

For each choice you make, you will be asked why you made that choice. Your reasons for choosing will become part of the public record of this election and will be subject to peer review, which will determine the weight to be given to your vote. In no case will your vote ever count as less than 1 vote for each of your choices.

Depending on the peer review of the reasons for each of your choices, your vote for a candidate or proposition may be counted from 1 to 3 times. The adjusted vote total of all votes cast by all voters following peer review will determine the outcome of each race.



  1. Eli Poupko says:

    Thanks for this interesting post. A couple quick comments:

    I tend to agree with you that the philosophical divide that Hasen writes about is not as partisan as he indicates, because as you say, partisans on both sides tend to agree that “elections should end with the right person or policy being chosen.” But I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that voter turnout is in no way correlated with we might call the epistemic quality of democratic outcomes. In other words, if one does believe in the existence of objectively right or wrong candidates or policies–what I call the epistemic assumption–I think it does indeed becomes harder to justify a democratic norm of inclusive participation. Instead, I propose to reject the epistemic assumption in favor of a less substantive democratic theory where most political outcomes reflect competing norms and values that cannot be objectively labeled as right or wrong.

    Secondly, I think your ballot reform proposal, while fascinating, reflects a major problem with the epistemic assumption. Asking voters to give reasons for their decisions is the kind of rationalistic requirement that only makes sense when one assumes that political questions are open to a rational determination of objective correctness–in other words, that there are objectively better and worse reasons for making a particular choice. But under the more expansive notion of liberal democratic theory (in the sense used by Riker in Liberalism vs. Populsim) that I want to advance it becomes less appropriate to inquire into the reasons behind voting decisions.

    I’m just finishing up a paper on this topic that I would be happy to share if you’re interested. I’ll be presenting it at a conference later this month on participation and social justice, so I’d greatly appreciate any comments.

    Best wishes,
    -Eli Poupko

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’d be honored to take a look at your paper on this topic.

      You immediately picked up on something that I was a little nervous about, even as I wrote it. On the one hand, I made the claim that all our decisionmaking is irrational and essentially random, guided by the vagaries of our endocrine stew. But then I turned around and suggested that we make voters describe the reasons why they voted for someone. How could I have it both ways? I mean, if people aren’t rational, why bother imposing some sort of artificial judgment on their after-the-fact rationalizations for choosing to vote in a particular way?

      In other words, you rightly pointed out that I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too.

      Here’s my (admittedly irrational post-hoc) explanation for both undercutting the notion of participatory democracy, and for upholding it: optimistic cynicism.

      Voting has value as a kind of self-soothing behavior, even when the policy outcomes of voting are bad. At least in our culture, the process of voting (i.e., actually going to the polling place, filling out a ballot, etc.) builds emotional satisfaction among the participants. People like to vote. Certain people also like to run for office, make policy decisions, work as election volunteers, or express political opinions.

      So all this behavior is going on in the context of making value judgments about the direction that our government takes. If you ask voters why they vote, they’ll be happy to tell you about their accomplishments in civic engagement. In their limited way, they are pushing on the levers of power, redirecting resources to different causes, and endorsing particular political views.

      I confess to engaging in a bit of moral relativist misdirection, by talking about value judgments without revealing that I’m jumping back and forth between two perspectives.

      The first perspective is that of the extreme moral relativist – terms like “good policy” or “bad policy” are meaningless. There are no good or bad judgments; the universe rolls on undisturbed whether Aaron Burr or Thomas Jefferson wins the election. All moral judgments are just ephemeral artifacts of human frailty and error.

      The second perspective is that of the frail inhabitant of a specific postindustrial empire entering the first half of the 21st century, viewing the universe and his place in it through the lens of his own survival. In this value-laden, superstitious, judgment-filled position, certain opinions are valid in the context of the culture in which they are made. The world would have been worse if Aaron Burr had become President; slavery was bad; the world would have been better if Hitler had stuck to watercolors.

      At too great a moral remove from the world, choice ceases to have meaning, and a monstrously alien indifference to the affairs of people threatens to arise. The gift of human irrationality is that it allows us to frame and contextualize our choices.

      Peer-reviewed votes aren’t better votes in the moral relativist sense. Peer reviewed votes are better votes in the objective positivist sense. Peer review is a mechanism for harnessing apparent or self-serving rationality in the service of enforcing cultural norms.

  2. Eli Poupko says:

    Thanks so much for your reply. I suppose you might say I’m also trying to have it both ways by looking for a way to incorporate both these perspectives–the moral relativist and the objective positivist–into a consistent and comprehensive democratic theory. So for example, though I might argue there should be no objective standard for judging the quality of votes, I might agree to an objective standard for judging the quality of legislative policies, constitutional decisions, etc. I’m really only interested in rooting out epistemic assumptions for election law and policy, not in democratic theory more generally. But this would rule out the idea of peer reviewed votes, which actually seems pretty similar to Mill’s idea of giving extra votes to more educated citizens.

    Thanks for the interest in my paper–I’ll follow up offline once its finished. And thanks again for engaging this interesting and important topic.

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