Bad Faith Voter Drives

Brian Weatherson wonders why profs may push voting in general but not particular candidates:

My university (Rutgers) is fairly actively encouraging students to register to vote. And I’ve occasionally done a bit to help, hosting students who do a spiel on voter registration and personally encouraging students to vote.  Now I think this is all a good thing. Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters, so doing our little bit to help democracy is being on the side of the good. …

But it seems it would be seriously wrong for either Rutgers, or for me, to use our positions of authority to promote voting for Obama.  And I think this isn’t a particularly controversial position.  But it’s a little hard to say just exactly why it’s OK for Rutgers (and me) to do what we’re doing, and not do what we’re not doing. …

It’s worth noting that there’s a degree of bad faith in all of this. We don’t think that we should be advocating Obama’s election. But we all know that encouraging more college students to vote will, on net, boost Obama’s vote totals. …


If the state of New Jersey spent millions of dollars advocating for Obama’s election, that would seem like a violation of some plausible democratic principles. …  Since Rutgers is a state university … and since I’m at the head of a class in virtue of my position in Rutgers, those rules should apply to me too. So that looks like a good reason that partisan advocacy in a classroom is out of bounds. It even suggests a reason why partisan advocacy is different to voter registration work. It is a legitimate state interest to have as many people as possible (legally) voting.

No, having as many people as possible voting is not a legitimate public interest.  To maximize the chance that we elect the better candidate, we do not want people to vote if they are so ill-informed that by voting they will decrease this chance.  And even if someone’s vote would increase this chance, if the increase is infinitesimal the fact that voting is costly can make us prefer he or she just stay home. 

If the act of voting tends to show an acceptance of the legitimacy of the political process, and if it is a good thing that citizens consider their political process legitimate, then more votes would be a sign of a good thing.  But that wouldn’t at all mean that just pushing people to vote is a good thing. 

Consider an analogy with grades.  Having students learn more is a legitimate interest of schools, and if students learn more they should get better grades.  But it is a fraud for schools to raise student grades when they have not actually learned more.  Similarly, it might be good things if citizens were better informed and considered their political process legitimate, and these good things might show themselves via more votes.  But just pushing more people to vote, without their actually becoming more informed or considering the process more legitimate, is also a fraud.

Brian, as an agent of the public you could legitimately push your students to vote if you, together with a counterfactual Brian with opposite partisan leanings, could both agree (and convince the public you had so agreed) that your students are informed enough that by voting they would substantially increase the chance we elect better candidates.  Or perhaps you might agree that your students accept the political process more than their votes indicate.  But if not, your voting advocacy is just a bad faith attempt to hide a partisan effort to push particular candidates.

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  • Valter

    First, the election is not necessarily about choosing “the better candidate”. In principle, there is no such thing: the two candidates may simply be better for different people (say, one is better for rich people, the other for poor people or urban/rural or more/less educated, etc.). Arguably, the university’s interests are relatively aligned with its students, so encouraging them to vote is no less ethical than, say, lobbying (or asking students to lobby) the government for more research funding.

    Second, to the extent that the election is about choosing the better candidate in some (which?) objective sense, then encouraging students to vote may still be a good idea if those who are thus encouraged to vote will bring enough information to the voting booth (either pre-existing or acquired after being convinced that they should vote). Is there any evidence that student voters are less informed than the average voter?

    Overall, I think Robin’s conditions are too restrictive.

  • Jay

    “To maximize the chance that we elect the better candidate”

    Every election is between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. Those that choose to vote do so to minimize the damage politicians do to our lives.

  • jls

    Democracy, like any other system, has an ideology attached to it. Or is it only the communists who have a state ideology? Well, I don’t think so. We, as citizens of democratic societies, are more or less induced to follow the official ideology. Which is what Weatherson does, with more or less good faith. And that ideology I’m talking about says:
    “Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters”
    And it says, of course, that citizens are well-informed. They know perfectly what they want and how to get it. And that applies to everybody (well, except minors, convicts…). That’s why everyone gets one vote, and the village idiot’s vote counts as much as Robin Hanson’s vote.

    Yes, we are all informed and capable of making good decissions. It’s not what I say. It’s what the ideology says. Is it true? Of course not. But it is hardly surprising that someone with some responsability (say, a university professor) in a democratic society follows the democratic doctrine. Most people in his position, I think, would agree, or at leas say they agreed, with the idea that “voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters”.

    By the way, I think that democracy is a great system. The fact that I’m not a believer in the doctrine isn’t that important.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Logically, you should only encourage voters to sign up if you believe they’re above the current average, and should encourage citizens to stop voting if you believe they’re below average.

    So we could have a “Should I Vote?” booth which administers a non-partisan test of informedness on current affairs, basic economics, etc., and tells you whether you’re above or below the average of voters surveyed in your state.

  • Keith

    To maximize the chance that we elect the better candidate, we do not want people to vote if they are so ill-informed that by voting they will decrease this chance.

    I know there have been books written on this topic, which I haven’t read, but even if the uninformed vote at random, on average we would expect their mistakes to cancel out. Is there some reason to think, statistically, that these mistakes don’t cancel out?

  • Marc

    While I agree that voting for a candidate is not all that important. Even when I go to vote I rarely vote for a candidate (I refuse to vote for an unopposed candidate or anybody I don’t like – which in Boston eliminates my participation in 90% of the contests), but I still always go. There are bond referendums, ballot initiatives and few other items of interest on all ballots. More people need to vote against bonds, so just go for that.

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    Keith, agreed.

    As for more votes being a legitimate state interest, more votes means people can feel more like they are responsible for the government, which allows them to keep paying taxes and not complain so much.

  • Grant

    Democracy seems to be a more efficient means of legitimizing government than past systems. Thus, it seems to be in the best interest of the political class that citizens vote, informed or not. So its not at all surprising to me that public officials often encourage universal voting, even if it harms the general populace.

    Keith, google Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter”. He addresses exactly that theory, and finds that uninformed voters do not vote at random, but in fact have systemic biases. You don’t have to read the book, as there are plenty of summaries online.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    I’d expect higher student voter turnouts to make politicians care more about issues that affect students.

    Such as state university funding…

  • Steve

    Unless you can demonstrate that the objectively worse candidate is the one uninformed voters mistakenly find more appealing, there’s no reason to expect uninformed voter’s votes won’t offset each other.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    It seems reasonable that the lower the tax burden a voter carries, the more likely he is to vote for a candidate who proposes more government-funded programs. I would think that most students fall into the category of “low tax burden”. Perhaps this is related to the quote: “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart.
    If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain,” disputably attributed to Winston Churchill.

  • Colin

    It’s clear Weatherson’s voter drives are conducted in bad faith. He freely admits an ulterior motive: “we all know that encouraging more college students to vote will, on net, boost Obama’s vote totals.”

    Robin’s grades analogy in some ways supports the practice of encouraging everyone (informed or not) to vote. Grades, in many ways, are the carrot to get students to learn. Encouragement of voting, the common inquiry, on and after election day, as to whether someone voted, and the collective disappointment when someone says he or she didn’t vote can be said to be the carrot to increased voter participation. Once people are pressured to do something, they may take it upon themselves to do it in an informed manner (I did). And because there are some that won’t take it upon themselves to become informed, perhaps we need another level of collective disappointment for people who voted but seem to lack some basic level of information about the vote they made. Perhaps encouraging votes has short term downsides (uninformed votes are cast, although this isn’t a downside if they cancel each other out), but long term benefits (a greater number of informed votes over time).

    Lastly, as an unrelated aside, I have wanted a similar booth to the one Eliezer suggests, but for procreation not voting. A “May I have children?” booth that tells you whether you are stable enough to bring an innocent life into this world and subject him or her to your limitations.

  • Phil Goetz

    Keith writes,

    I know there have been books written on this topic, which I haven’t read, but even if the uninformed vote at random, on average we would expect their mistakes to cancel out. Is there some reason to think, statistically, that these mistakes don’t cancel out?

    This is my beef with “Wisdom of Crowds”: the author doesn’t ask when mistakes don’t cancel out.

    Mistakes don’t cancel out when candidates hire savvy advertisers. Mistakes don’t cancel out when one party has an irrational attachment to rationality, and the other embraces emotional over rational messages.

  • Carl Shulman

    Robin,

    1. Rutgers students are surely better-informed than the average voter.

    2. Even with fully informed voters, there would be differences in basic values, and the profs and students would be likely to be similar. Work like Haidt’s indicates that there are genetically mediated personality differences that make some voters care more and others care less about particular issues, e.g. high openness profs and college students supporting equality for gay people. Profs can see themselves as mobilizing vs Pebblesorters to some extent, and you can call this bad faith, but it’s not unreasonable.

    3. Profs can choose whether to promote student turnout in different years based on polling information about student preferences. Insofar as their voter registration drives have an effect that decays with time (a very reasonable assumption indeed), then this just enhances the weight of the informed prof votes without creating independent lower-quality voters.

    4. Even if voting turnouts are boosted because of drives such as this, the actual turnout creates a tool for propaganda, and those who voted, for whatever reason may experience commitment effects.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Carl’s point #4 would’ve have been how I would have been how I’d start and end a post a couple years ago. There’s a theory that people who vote are more likely to accept the governing winner of an election, even if it’s not who they voted for. Given that university students tend to be rebellion entrepreneurs more so than other groups (think about Iran, and the USA in the ’60s and ’70s) it could make sense to have a special focus on university student voting.

    However, these days I’m trying to put empiricism first. It’s an empirical question the degree to which voting reduces rebellion (also it’s an empirical question the degree to which rebellion reduces public goods like health and economic security). So what does the best data reveal to us on the value of encouraging university students to vote?

  • http://bjk.com bjk

    I’ve had doubts about Weatherson’s philosophical qualities, but always assumed that I was missing something. This post makes me think my initial impression was correct.

    The fact that he’s a foreigner is also aggravating. Would I go to Australia and declare “support for xyz Australian candidate is a moral responsibility”? No. That’s the Australians business, as long as I’m a guest there. And vice versa.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    Brian, as an agent of the public you could legitimately push your students to vote if you, together with a counterfactual Brian with opposite partisan leanings, could both agree (and convince the public you had so agreed) that your students are informed enough that by voting they would substantially increase the chance we elect better candidates. Or perhaps you might agree that your students accept the political process more than their votes indicate. But if not, your voting advocacy is just a bad faith attempt to hide a partisan effort to push particular candidates.

    Robin, I don’t see the rationale for requiring Brian to agree with his Republican counterpart that an increase in student voter turnout would increase the expected goodness of the elected candidate. It seems to me that we should rather ask him to hold this belief justifiably rather than on partisan grounds. Provided that this condition is met, there would appear to be no reason to assume bad faith on his part.

    (Notice that, since it is not clear whether Republicans can have any justified political beliefs at all, a situation in which Brian met your requirement may in fact be one in which his counterpart’s beliefs inevitably lacked justification.)

  • Chuck

    Political scientists say that specific candidates and issues are not what turn election outcomes, but rather how the economy is doing (and other things) and which party is incumbent. It seems to me that observations on this web site about bias and rationalization provide a legitimate premise to the work.

    I don’t think democracy is about people making decisions on government policy. It is about legitimizing government and about hitting the purge button on elite clique every once in a while.

    Education is not about learning.
    Marriage is not about romance.
    Voting is not about issues.

  • http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/9587-Thursday-mid-day-links.html Maggie’s Farm

    Thursday mid-day links

    Is this election a referendum on Obama? Sad to say, it probably is. Obama offers HOPE, CHANGE, and socialism. McCain offers…what? Ordinary decent, honest, moderate-conservative¬†governance, I guess – which is not too exciting but which is all I ask fo…

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, the cutoff might not be exactly at the average, but it may well be somewhere around there.

    Keith and Steve, random mistakes add to the variance of the total vote for the best candidate, which is bad.

    Marc, the same logic applies to bonds as to candidates.

    Thom, why is it good for people not to complain if in fact there are many things to complain about?

    Pablo, I’m not sure Brian could justifiably think he had good non-partisan reasons if he didn’t think his partisan-counterfactual version would agree.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    Robin, I can clearly justifiably think I have good non-partisan reasons to vote for some Democratic candidate who was running against a Nazi or a Stalinist candidate, even if I didn’t think my Nazi or Stalinist counterpart would agree. It is not clear why things would be any different when a Republican candidate is substituted for the Nazi/Stalinist candidate.

  • Unnamed

    If the point is to increase the chances that we elect the better candidate, then I don’t see why it matters how informed the students are. We know that most of them will vote for Obama. It doesn’t matter if they arrived at this position through knowledge or ignorance: encouraging them to vote will increase Obama’s chances of winning, which means that, by Robin’s standard, it is a good thing iff Obama is the better candidate (setting aside the non-infinitesimal proviso).

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

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    A few points:

    – Perhaps encouraging people to vote will also encourage them to become better informed.

    – Large-scale participation in voting, regardless of how well informed the voters are, helps legitmate the democratic system of government. You may or may not consider that a good thing, but insofar as it is good, it is a system-level good rather than a partisan good. I don’t see any bad faith in this.

    – your model of the purpose of voting as “maximize the chance that we elect the better candidate” is laughably simplistic. Politics is inherently partisan, there is no “better” on some objective scale (I find myself in strenuous disagreement with myself here, since to me, like Weatherson, there is obviously a better candidate in this race. But other people disagree, and there is no possibility of an objective measurement.

    For a non-autistic view of what voting is all about, I recommend this paper by Valdis Krebs. Briefly, voting is not about individual decsion making, but instead it’s about mobilizing social networks. The political process is an ongoing process of social coalition-bulding. Voting is just a particular endpoint of this process.


  • Carl Shulman

    Robin,

    “Pablo, I’m not sure Brian could justifiably think he had good non-partisan reasons if he didn’t think his partisan-counterfactual version would agree.”

    ‘Counterfactual Republican Brian’ would have to have some causal history explaining his political views. Is he religious? Does he have low openness to experience? Attended a lot more Institute for Humane Studies seminars as a youth? Had more Republican family members and roommates?

    Should Brian be able to justify things to ‘counterfactual evangelical Christian Brian?’

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Carl and Pablo, I’m following Brian’s concept that it is all right for him as a state agent to promote a general interest but not to take sides in the current election. If a Stalinist were running in this election, then yes to be neutral Brian would need agreement from his Stalinist counterfactual.

  • bsf

    Advocating voting is not necessarily partisan. It is only partisan if the audience is itself partisan, such as on a liberal-leaning college campus. If there was advertisements on national TV, instead, that would not be partisan because there, as far as I know, are not more or less Democrats/Republicans watching TV. Using state money to support voting in a partisan environment ends up increasing support for one candidate more than another, but that fact is independent of the goal to increase total voting in order to support the nature of our government. It doesn’t matter if the people deciding how much advocating of voting in general already know that those people will vote for one party’s candidate over another’s candidate, because it is the voter’s choice, not the institution trying to get people to vote’s choice of who to pick.
    The second point to not advocate voting was that it would as a consequence increase voting from people who do not have the education to do so. The problem here is that education is not required, nor should it be, to vote. The goal is not to elect the best candidate, it is to elect the president the people want, whether the people are educated or not.

  • Lars

    Many people operate under the assumption that there’s two candidates, and they -have- to choose one of them. There isn’t. There are plenty of candidates. However, voters who want to choose someone who isn’t nominated by Democrats or Republicans has to do seek out their information about them – it’s not spoon fed to them by mainstream media. That is, they have to be active citizens who do their research.

    I’ve noticed that many people will vote for the person they think will win – not the person they -want- to win. For example, I’ve heard people say “well, I don’t want to vote for some guy who’s gonna lose.’ That indicates to me that they’re confusing cause and effect. Voters should choose the candidate they agree with, not the one they think will win. Either way, their vote has the same value – very little, when compared to the approximately 150 million people who vote in the US.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    What struck me most about Weatherson’s essay was this statement:

    “It seems to me that voting in the upcoming election for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin is pretty close to a moral requirement.”

    This seems to me to express a commitment to positive liberty a la Rousseau. The collectivity requires my participation in creating an expression of the general will. This may reflect his Australian background; in Oz, voting is compulsory, and the law requiring voting is apparently sometimes even enforced.

    If one grants that to vote legitimizes government by proving the necessary “consent of the governed” in order for the resulting structure to be deemed as offering liberty not tyranny, then such compulsion might make sense. If not enough people express consent via voting, then we might actually have a practical tyranny.

    However cannot it be argued that such pressured – or coerced – and manufactured consent is at best a lessened consent, even no consent at all? This makes me suspicious of his positive liberty claim for a benevolent action on behalf of a general good. In this case at least, negative liberty seems to deliver the actual freedom – that is, a more genuine consent.

    Then the interesting question would be how many people or what percentage of voters would be required to create a “natural” genuine consent, and thus assure a governing structure of liberty – acknowledging that in practice, we always face liberty-liberty tradeoffs in a transactional manner.

    I’m not sure if this takes me as far as a bad faith conclusion. But it does seem that Weatherson may unwittingly be contributing to reducing actual liberty validation in the name of pure democratic form.

  • Lord

    Is it even possible to encourage voting without also encouraging becoming informed enough to do so, even if marginally or indirectly? Is anyone so self deluded they think their actions would have a material effect on the results? This should be viewed less as an attempt at persuasion than self confirmation.

  • Genevieve

    Eliezer: There’s a simpler way. I was volunteering over the weekend to register people to vote for Obama, because I enjoy front-row passes at exceptionally crowded Bruce Springsteen shows and the campaign offered that as the incentive to register voters for a few hours. (Not that I managed to register a significant number of people. The overwhelming majority of people showing up for that show were already registered and strongly for Obama. But hey, front row tickets!) For those of you that haven’t seen the registration forms, it’s pretty simple. Name, address, date of birth, last four digits of SSN, check yes if you are 18 or over and a U.S. citizen, write today’s date, and sign it.

    People have trouble with this. They put the current date for their birth-date. They put the wrong address. They check off the wrong box saying “I’m changing my address, so it’s new voter, right?” No, there’s a box that says “change of address” for a reason. (Actually, it’s new voter if you’re coming in from a state other than the one you are registering in, but I digress). They forget to sign it. They write “United States” where it says “County.”

    It is an exceedingly simple form, and someone standing in line to get concert tickets who asks me for such a form should be able to handle it. Yet, people cannot. Feeling charitable pre-no $ cost Bruce show, I decided to not be objective and chalk it up to the scene- pre-concert, waiting in line, lots of people, etc- but I was told later, that, no, people mess it up no matter where they fill it out. If you cannot fill out the form without help, you should not be able to vote. That should be the minimum threshold, and I think we’d actually cull out a lot more people than one would expect to.

  • http://beyondthecode.wordpress.com David Wynn

    Robin,

    I agree adding a number of uninformed people to the voter pool does little to help the process as a whole, but I’m not sure we could ever properly screen out the ones who were so uneducated.

    However, I thought your quote here was interesting.

    “And even if someone’s vote would increase this chance, if the increase is infinitesimal the fact that voting is costly can make us prefer he or she just stay home.”

    If a person’s vote has a non-zero increase in the betterment of a voting system, shouldn’t “us” (I’m guessing you mean society here) encourage people to vote anyway? That voting might be costly to individuals has no bearing on the value of multiple informed votes to the system as a whole.

    That’s just my two cents.

  • http://bccy.blogspot.com frelkins

    @David Wynn

    “might be costly to individuals has no bearing on the value of multiple informed votes to the system as a whole.”

    You’re not seriously arguing this, are you? To claim that “the value to the system as a whole” outweighs a high cost to the individual is, with all due respect, terrifying. Not to overstate the case, but this is the worst form of positive liberty.

    Voting is a small example – but as often happens on OB, upon reflection it illuminates the largest principles.

  • Benquo

    @Robin Hanson:

    “If a Stalinist were running in this election, then yes to be neutral Brian would need agreement from his Stalinist counterfactual.”

    Do you mean if a Stalinist were running at all, or if a Stalininst were a major-party candidate/non-negligible contender?

    The former principle I think would make a no-taking-sides rule equivalent to a no-action-at-all rule; I think there are few if any aspects of the “public good” that don’t at least implicitly side against someone. (Cf. teaching evolution in schools; a lot of people sure seem to feel that constituted taking sides against them. And I don’t think my Anarchist counterfactual would be easy to convince of the value of any legitimization of the current regime.)

    But the latter standard would mean we need some way to determine how mainstream a party has to be before helping/hurting it counts as “taking sides.” (Too small and it’s not a meaningful “side,” too large and it’s identical with the public good.)

  • Sociology Graduate Student

    I can’t imagine a counterfactual with opposite partisan leanings. Ideally my feelings about Obama and McCain are based on my values and beliefs on matters of fact. What values and beliefs would be held by my counterfactual with opposite partisan leanings?

  • http://mrhen.com/ MrHen

    I am having trouble with the analogy. Professors are responsible for assigning grades and it is something they can directly affect. Artificially raising grades is not the same as encouraging people to vote. If professors had the ability to force people to vote, the analogy would fit. A more apt analogy is to say that pushing students to vote would be the same as pushing students to get better grades.

  • John Maxwell IV

    >But if not, your voting advocacy is just a bad faith attempt to hide a partisan effort to push particular candidates.

    I stand by the principle of taking a non-partisan approach in most situations. However, it seems to me that rules about non-partisanship break down if you’ve done a thorough, humble analysis. Should Brian still act non-partisan if the election was between, say, Hitler and Gandhi?

    Ultimately, the ends do justify the means. You just have to make sure you’re keeping track of all the ends.

  • rpl

    Should Brian still act non-partisan if the election was between, say, Hitler and Gandhi?

    By framing the question this way you’ve mutated it into another question entirely. The original question was, is encouraging people to vote (without pushing a particular candidate) really non-partisan if you know that in practice most of your audience will vote for the candidate you favor? In this scenario the desirability of non-partisanship is stipulated from the beginning.

    In the hypothetical election between Hitler and Gandhi, most people would be unabashedly partisan. The operative word here is “unabashedly”. A pro-Gandhi partisan in such an election wouldn’t try to pretend to himself that he was non-partisan and thus wouldn’t care whether he was acting in a non-partisan way.

    Back to the actual scenario, what we have here is a person who is pushing his favorite candidate (i.e., being a partisan) while trying to claim the mantle of non-partisanship. That is where the “bad faith” comes in.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Look, this is really fairly simple.

    Would the gentleman in question still be encouraging the students to vote if he knew the majority of them would favor McCain rather than Obama? If he’d still do it, then his concern is with increasing voting activity. If he wouldn’t, then he’s just trying to increase the power of his favored candidate.

    Of course, if he’s not an American citizen, then he’s minding what most certainly is not his business, and he should have his eyes removed as penance.

    That is all.