Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Beautiful Mind

A number of weeks ago, the authors of Freakonomics published a piece in the New York Times Magazine about why people vote. Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to be a shill for these authors. But I do find the articles they publish interesting, even when I don’t agree with them. And in this case, I do not agree with the conclusions of the article.

Levitt and Dubner believe that the act of voting is not necessarily a rational choice. Elections are rarely decided by one vote, and the bigger elections are quite often not even close. So there seems to be little incentive for any individual person to vote. They go on to claim that people vote because they want to be seen at the polling site fulfilling their civic duty. As evidence they use Switzerland’s decision to allow voting by mail, which decreased voter turn-out. But I don’t think this explains how “energizing the base” works.

When it comes to having your candidate elected, voter turnout is extremely important. But members of each party will only turnout to vote if they believe that the rest of the party will vote as well. Therefore, it becomes more like a repeated game, where the strategic decision for everyone is to vote because it will encourage others to vote as well. Conversely, if a voter believes that others will not vote, they will have less incentive to cooperate. The fact that we vote in public is what makes it most like a repeated game. Voter turnout in one election will impact voter turnout in the next election. By not voting, you will be associated with the broader group who did not cooperate and support the cause. But your decision to vote or not can only be known when voting is a public act.

I think people see their vote, not as an individual ballot, but as part of a block. And the group will only have an impact if everyone cooperates. This explains why voter turnout declined in Switzerland. Since they don’t have to be seen to vote, people could defect in secret. The mail-in vote makes it less like a repeated game and allows the decision to be about immediate payoffs without the fear of consequences.