The "Entertainment Value" of Voting
One of my morning rituals is to check out the latest posts to Arts & Letters Daily, a page sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education that brings to light interesting articles and comments on the web from various sources. ALDaily used to be connected to Lingua Franca, the highly entertaining magazine devoted to academia and the humanities, which collapsed a few years ago. Since the shift, I've detected a tendency not to dig quite as deeply as it used to for interesting items to post. I've often wondered, for instance, how many people would really never have discovered interesting stories from the Sunday New York Times magazine if ALDaily didn't post to it early in the week. A lot of content on ALDaily now comes directly from the NYT, or the NY Observer, or the Washington Post, or a few other highly fruitful publications. I've also noted increasingly that ALDaily's blurbs, usually a quote or paraphrase from the article to introduce the link, occasionally give an unreasonably bad sense of the tone or intent of the article itself. Maybe an example will appear soon.
Anyway, another NYT magazine piece appeared this morning, a short essay by Jim Holt on the efficacy of voting in presidential elections. I read it with a bit of professional interest, knowing the political science literature on vote turnout, and was pleased to see a brief review of some rational choice theorizing on why people choose (or choose not) to vote. The basic paradox of rational voting is that, given a benefit for voting that is realized only if one's favorite candidate wins, the rational voter will choose not to vote unless the likelihood of being the deciding vote is high or the actual benefit is high enough to overcome the low probability of causing its realization. Putting aside congressional, state and local elections, people should only turn out to vote if they believe that their vote will decide the election. Of course, since turnout increases during presidential election years, it's implausible that people are drawn to vote by local races where they are more likely to decide the contests.
Due to the number of ballots cast and, as Holt points out, the "unit rule" system that awards all electoral college votes in a state to the winner of the statewide election in all states but Nebraska and Maine, the chances of actually casting the deciding vote in the election is really small. In fact, its about zero in many cases. Economically minded social scientists have pondered this for some time and come up with various explanations of why people, nonetheless, vote. The overestimation of efficacy, or delusional belief that you really do decide the election, isn't widely credited. There's also a basement-level problem with the rational choice prediction that costly voting will dissuade people from voting, since if everyone behaved rationally, then polling places would be vacant and at least one cost of voting (waiting) would be eliminated. Reminiscent of that Yogi Berra line, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Also, not voting in such a circumstance wouldn't be a stable Nash Equilibrium, since if no one else is voting, and people actually gain an outcome benefit, you could determine the outcome by being the only voter. Obviously, something else is going on.
Models of the "calculus of voting," devised by Anthony Downs and built upon by William Riker and Peter Ordeshook, included a benefit term for voting, which they referred to alternatively as the benefit of continuing democracy or the value of performing the civic duty of voting. This "D" term made it worthwhile to incur whatever costs were associated with voting. Of course, the "D" term is awfully convenient, and is often derided as a fudge factor intended to explain otherwise irrational behavior, but the presence of a duty benefit does seem consistent with "rational ignorance," the fact that many citizens who choose to vote do not choose to invest in information that may be helpful in making that choice count. Any increase in the cost of voting, like making yourself informed, is only worth it if it increases the benefit, which it won't if the benefit is gained merely by showing up.
Now, Mo Fiorina and other political scientists have come up with other explanations, like the "entertainment value" of voting, that are at least as consistent with the stylized facts of voting. Voting, according to this approach, has a "consumption value" which can be enjoyed without maximizing the expected benefit of the election outcome. I've come much closer to accepting this theory since the advent of American Idol and its ilk on television. Like the duty value, expressive or consumption value can be enjoyed without the investment necessary to make the vote itself an informed one. In fact, some might argue that the less one knows about the candidates, the more one can enjoy the experience of voting for one.
There are other explanations of voting that are not quite so pessimistic. Voters motivated by a duty heuristic may make their actual vote choices based on "low-information rationality" or an "online tally" of positives and negatives. People, in other words, don't remember a lot about the candidates, but recall how often or with what intensity they found something agreeable or disagreeable about them. Voters may also rely on opinion leaders, people who share basic goals and interests and can inform themselves on the candidates and issue at low cost (because they are college professors, for instance.) As opinion leaders, these people may have additional incentive to invest in making their vote choices informed.
Many of these explanations have some evidence, experimental or quasi-experimental. Still, the "entertainment value of voting" has a special ring to it. Even though I'm more inclined to believe that people get something like a "consumer value" out of voting than direct entertainment value, its just too much fun to argue that people vote in order to be entertained.
I'm pleased that Holt noted the research (by Steven Brams, one of my favorite game theorists) on the weight given to big states by the Electoral College and unit rule. I get tired of hearing otherwise intelligent people parrot their barely-remembered high school civics teacher saying that the Electoral College provides vital representation to small states in national elections.
As for the moral of his essay, that people should vote out of a sense of duty and presumably incur the costs of becoming an informed voter as well, he assumes, like many people who stumble into the thicket of voting behavior, that voting can be thought of as a coordination game or cooperative scenario rather than a non-cooperative, competitive one. The Condorcet Jury Theorem, which he refers to in that paragraph, rests on several assumptions and, in a more general form, only guarantees that a collective decision will more likely be correct than a decision made by a randomly chosen individual. It would be great if we could collectively work toward improving election outcomes by encouraging more, better informed people to vote, but that would likely reduce the entertainment value of voting, and maybe that's all we've got holding democracy together.