Why vote?

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, the economists that brought us Freakonomics argued that a rational individual should abstain from voting. According to them, virtually no election is decided by a single vote so the cost for voting is never compensated by any payoff. Their conclusion of why we (or some of us) actually do vote is because of the social esteem gained by being seen voting by our peers. They predict that internet voting may actually reduce voter turnout because we would no longer get this social payoff.

It seems to me that using social prestige as the basis for selecting a leader is a shaky way to maintain a democracy. The real intent of an election is to determine which candidate is favoured by the majority of the populace. For the most part, our current method accomplishes this task (insert your favourite Florida 2000 joke here) although it has two main problems.

The first is that making everyone vote to determine who is preferred is wasteful. In statistics, this is known as an overpowered experimental design. We only need to sample a fraction of the population to obtain an estimate of the election result. The error on the estimate scales with the square root of the sample size. In an election, when enough people have voted so that the error in the estimated result is less then the eventual margin, additional polling won’t give you any new information. This is why a single vote doesn’t matter.

In a practical sense, this is already what we do because only a fraction of the population votes. However, the fraction that votes is not guaranteed to be a representative sample of the population. Any bias in how the sample is selected will bias the estimate. This leads to the second problem with elections. In a close election, who shows up to vote could skew the results. One facet of election strategy is to enhance the turnout of your voters and suppress that of your opponent’s. This never seemed very democratic to me.

If we really wanted to elect leaders based on what the true majority wishes then an election is not the optimal method. What we really should be doing is to scientifically select a sample of the population to vote. Of course deciding on how to choose this sample will never be perfect. There will also be some misrepresentation (like underrepresentation of homeless people) but I think we can certainly do better than what we have now. If we wanted to be really efficient we could even use a bootstrap method to estimate the error compared to the estimated margin of victory on the fly. Now, I’d like to see some brave politician suggest this scheme.

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8 thoughts on “Why vote?

  1. Your proposal regarding voting is interesting, but suitable only for popularity contests (Ms America, Grammy’s,…) or as a thought experiment. I really do not want democratic rule by a majority of the US population. I want rule by a majority of informed, knowledgeable, thoughtful citizens.A large fraction of the US population is too easily distracted by shiny objects (tax cuts and flag waving). For example, it has been always clear that Al Qaeda and Iraq/Saddam were separate issues, but well over 50% of the population was deceived into believing they were related. Until the population is able to process information and recognize lies and deception, I fear majority rule.It would be preferable to get away from elections consisting of sound bites and hot button issues, and instead have extended discussions of fundamental issues and philosophical approaches to the challenges facing our society. Your blog is a nice example, but I think girls-gone-wild probably is getting more hits. I’d like to see some brave politician have a campaign of substance and advocate for a world-class public educational system. If this is achieved, his/her grand-child can suggest the sampling scheme for voting.

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  2. Hmm…doesn’t seem to have posted correctly, so I will try againYour proposal regarding voting is interesting, but suitable only for popularity contests (Ms America, Grammy’s,…) or as a thought experiment. I really do not want democratic rule by a majority of the US population. I want rule by a majority of informed, knowledgeable, thoughtful citizens.A large fraction of the US population is too easily distracted by shiny objects (tax cuts and flag waving). For example, it has been always clear that Al Qaeda and Iraq/Saddam were unrelated issues, yet well over 50% of the population was deceived into believing they were part of the very same threat. Until the population is able to process information and recognize lies and deception, I fear majority rule.Admittedly our current system is vulnerable to mobilization of single-issue voters by special interests, but I like to believe that voters educated on the issues are a consistent voting block. If you are correct that true majority rule is better, then I am sure the special interests (for example an alliance between Green Peace, Haliburton, NRA, UAW and NOW) will do all that is in their power to thwart a statistical sampling election scheme. Maybe a trial where it would have minimal impact (a small North American or Nordic country?) would be a good test case.It would be preferable to get away from elections consisting of sound bites and hot button issues, and instead have earnest discussions of fundamental issues and philosophical approaches to the challenges facing our society. Your blog is a nice example, but I think girls-gone-wild probably is getting more hits. I’d like to see some brave politician have a campaign of substance and advocate for a world-class educational system. Once this is achieved, his/her grand-child can suggest a sampling methodology for voting.

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  3. Your points are well taken. A well informed voting populace would be the most desirable. However, I do think that taking into account the wishes of the apathetic segment of society would be a good thing.

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  4. Well, it might be worth mentioning — for those who never came across it — Asimov’s short story about elections and voting (“Franchise”, 1955, I think), which discusses many of the issues raised here.

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  5. A representative sample does indeed give a very good estimate of the final voting result. That’s why opinion pollsters make so much money!How about not electing legislators? They could be appointed by random selection. Say 0.001% of the population is picked and forced to be in charge for a few years. It works OK for juries. Think of the money that could be used to more beneficial uses than trying to persuade voters.

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