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.