Should voting be mandatory?

by Andrew Gelman on November 7, 2011 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections

You can see my contribution to the discussion here. I discuss the research of Jan Leighley, Jonathan Nagler, and others. Here’s my conclusion:

Whether or not mandatory voting is a good idea, I think it’s unlikely to happen at a national level. Even setting aside the practical difficulties of taking a now-voluntary action and making it compulsory, bringing in the other half of the potential electorate would change the political conversation so much that it’s hard for me to see current officeholders supporting such a plan.

P.S. I took a look at the other contributions to the discussion.

Quant that I am, I didn’t make any recommendations, I just presented some numbers and analyses.

Of other five contributors, four (Richard Pildes, Lisa Hill, Marion Just, and Michael Dawson) took the unexceptional position that higher voter turnout would be better and that it would be good if (a) diasffacted nonvoters were persuaded to vote, and (b) marginal voters were not intimidated away from voting.

One discussant, however, Jason Brennan, took the contrarian position that voter turnout is too high and, in his words, “We should encourage citizens to vote well or not vote at all. Don’t ask your neighbor to vote. Instead, ask the ignorant and irrational voters, how dare you?” This would fit in well with ID checking and other proposals to reduce turnout.

Brennan’s position is interesting in that it conflates two issues: voters’ knowledge about issues and their preferences about the role of government. Brennan is write that voters “have systematically false beliefs about basic economics, political science and foreign policy,” and I assume he’s right that nonvoters are, on average, even more ignorant.

However, as I discuss in my contribution (see link above), nonvoters differ systematically from voters not only in their knowledge but also in their concerns. And when half the potential voters don’t participate in our elections, we’re losing that perspective.

Here’s an example that’s all-too-relevant to our current political mess. Well-educated rich middle-aged whites (like me!) vote at something like a 90% rate in presidential elections. I’m guessing that if you consider the fraction of the population who have lots of money in mortgages or the stock market, most of these people vote, and many of them contribute financially to election campaigns. And, unsurprisingly, when house prices fell and the stock market was crashing in 2008, that was considered by the government and the media to be a crisis that needed immediate attention. I’m not talking Democrats or Republicans here, I’m talking a crisis that both parties felt the need to respond to right away. On the other hand, economic concerns that hit nonvoters and noncontributors don’t make it on to the front burner. When you get big gaps in voter turnout you get big gaps in political representation—-and that can be a problem.

Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. might be well informed, with not too many “systematically false beliefs about basic economics, political science and foreign policy,” but as political figures they will feel a push toward representing their constituents—-the people who cast the votes and the people who spend the money to fund the campaigns and political organizations.

It’s the nature of representative democracy (not the same thing as direct democracy) that voters do not need to be well-informed, it’s ok if they disagree with the experts on issues such as the effects of an increase in the minimum wage, the evidence for biological evolution, the case for immigration restrictions, and the desirability of cuts in the military budget. What is important is that they can vote for people who can represent them in government. Brennan’s point about the ignorance of voters is important but it seems to me to be outweighed by the problems that arise from lack of representation.

To put it another way: Brennan might be right that it’s unethical for a poorly-informed citizen to vote in a national election. But I’m less concerned with the ethics of the voter and more concerned with the outcomes for me and the country as a whole, and I’m inclined to agree with the other four participants in the discussion that we’d be better off with a government that more closely represents all the people. (But that’s all speculation; in my column linked to above, I restrict myself to the facts.)

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