Shallow Voter Cures

I wrote:

To the extent that some [voters] have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe.  For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud. …

If corporations are silenced … not only would that hinder non-shallow voters from getting info from corporations, the total distortion by shallow voters is not obviously reduced! … Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc. … Shallowness can vary with person, topic, and context. If it is rare, we can ignore it, but it is more common than not we need to seriously revise who can vote on what.

Now shallow voters, who just believe whatever a majority of ads say, are probably not a big problem.  After all, campaign spending seems remarkably ineffective.  But we could benefit from better informed and more attentive voters, so it’s worth considering reforms to get that.  Reducing who can vote is only one of many options:

  • Juries – randomly select a small jury of voters to participate in each election.  Each juror chosen would know they have a much better chance of making a difference, and so would pay more attention.
  • Rotation – rotate voters across years and offices, so that they do not always vote on everything.  This would also focus voter attention because they would know they made more of a difference.
  • Topic – divide policies into topics, and let each voter pick their specialty topic.  Votes among topic specialists would somehow set policy on that topic.
  • Jury Foremen – randomly group citizens in each neighborhood into juries of thirteen, and have each jury, well in advance, elect a foreman to vote in the general election.  They’d elect smart foremen, little constrained on how to vote.
  • More ideas?

Why are all those folks, so very concerned that firms with free speech might manipulate shallow voters, so uninterested in these options?

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  • Kezia Kamenetz

    I am confused by this definition of ‘shallow voters’: “who just believe whatever a majority of ads say”. As shown in this article, in 93% of house races and 94% of senate races, the candidate who spent the most money won. Let’s assume that they were also the candidate who had the majority of ads. Does that then mean that the all the people who voted for them are ‘shallow’ voters?

    One could argue that the candidate who raised the most money had the most support to begin with, and that’s why they win a vast majority of the time. But that is only a valid argument if you are assuming the money they raise is from individual contributors. With the understanding that this money could and often does come from corporations, who represent the interests of only a small number of individuals, then it becomes clear that the amount of money you spend makes the difference between people getting elected or not.

    Who are these shallow voters, then. The majority of people who vote in every election? How do you determine whether someone is a shallow voter or not? It seems that your primary beef with these shallow voters is that they are too susceptible to outside influence, that the deep voter would transcend the bombardment of a majority of ads and get to the ‘real’ information about a political candidate.

    But I feel certain that many extremely well intentioned, intelligent, thoughtful people who seek information about political candidates would be influenced by political advertising. Are they shallow voters as well? I have this certainty because advertising works. That’s why corporations spend over 412 billion dollars on it every year. Advertising does everything in its power to manipulate individuals into believing its message. That’s its purpose. To claim that only shallow people fall victim to it is a strange combination of elitism and naivete. To further suggest that we should weed these shallow people out is bizarre at best, and only makes sense if you provide an sensible definition of who these people are.

    • q

      Did you read the post? He defined a “shallow voter” as someone who tends to believe everything stated in advertisements. And he also said they were not a “big problem.” And nowhere in his post does he find it necessary to identify who these people are; his solutions are suggestions to mitigate the problem of shallow voters, whoever they are, by generally encouraging everyone to be less shallow.

      That “shallow voters” exist is assumed a priori, otherwise people wouldn’t be complaining about corporations spending money on political ads, as a non-shallow voter, by definition, would not so readily believe ads they see.

      • Kezia K

        Robin defined shallow voter as someone who believes what the majority of ads say, not someone who believes everything ads say. He argues that these shallow voters are not a big problem, but I’m suggesting that they are the majority of people. The complaint about campaign finance isn’t to protect a small number of shallow voters who ‘fall’ for advertising, but to admit that everyone is influenced by it, since that is it purpose, and so its source is relevant.

    • Chris

      It’s not clear if money creates a strong candidacy, or a strong candidate attracts more money. I suspect the latter may be true.

      Another fact your simple numbers ignore: 95% of House incumbents and 93% of senate incumbents won reelection, and 1 in 4 races had no serious opposition. There are strong correlations floating around here; without more careful analysis, your statistic is unhelpful.

      (Also note that money doesn’t seem to help weak candidates much, see e.g. Ron Paul.)

    • Follow my link at “seems”!

      • g

        I followed it and didn’t find any support for your claim. (See my top-level comment below.) Would you care to say more?

    • I’m also confused by the term shallow voters.

      If they’re not much of a problem, why offer all these other “solutions” when you can eliminate the problem by banning corporate (and union) money being used in campaigns?

      Also, aren’t those people who only ever vote for one party the most shallow? They’d never consider the other side’s opinion, even if it is in the best interest of the country.

  • Kezia Kamentz, candidates with more support in the form of votes also tend to get more support in the form of donations. But independently wealthy candidates (or candidates who just have a few large donors, such as either George McGovern or Gene McCarthy (I forget which)) do poorly. So voters who vote for candidates with more ads don’t necessarily vote for them BECAUSE of the ads.

    Robin your idea for jurors is similar to that of Nick Szabo. I believe the Athenians also randomly selected citizens to serve that kind of role.

  • Bill

    Do we want judicial campaignss financed by corporations which appear before them? Some states apply judicial recusal for campaign contributors to judges on the grounds of undue influence.

    Don’t you want the best justice money can buy?

    O Brave New Day. Why can’t we have Iran finance our elections?

    • Chris

      I, for one, don’t want judicial campaigns at all. There is a lot to be said for an appointed judiciary.

      I’m no more worried about a corporation contributing to a judicial election than a rich individual. I am very worried about a judge pandering to the electorate.

      • J

        I agree on judical elections, though I think ratification elections, as California has for Appeals Courts, are a good idea. Judges should be appointed, but the public should be allowed the opportunity to fire them.

      • Bill

        Not worried about pandering to the Judge’s pocketbook? Remember, if you lose, you have to go out and find another job.

        Also, why should I lose the right to vote for judges because some Supreme Court judge decides to permit corporations to select judges, and the only way to avoid that is to deny me the right to vote?

      • Chris

        Bill, I’m worried about judges pandering to you. That’s why I want to remove your right to vote for judges. The job of a judge is to correctly interpret the law; with judicial elections, a judge might lose their job because they correctly interpreted an unpopular law.

        This gives judges the incentive to incorrectly interpret the law.

        This has nothing to do with how easily persuaded you are by campaign commercials.

      • Bill

        Actually, I support executive appointment of judges with legislative approval also, but, in the world we live in, we do have judicial elections of judges, at the state and local level. You might also consider whether pandering to the voter is any different than pandering to the governor for an appointment. But, that is another matter.

  • >Why are all those folks, so very concerned that firms with free speech might manipulate shallow voters, so uninterested in these options?

    Because most of them are really just responding to and trying to justify (rationalize) their responses to decades of academic anti-business brainwashing.

    • >Because most of them are really just responding to and trying to justify (rationalize) their responses to decades of academic anti-business brainwashing.

      Maybe. However, I am worried about private armies built by and for corporations. Ever hear of , um…. Blackwater. yea I’m pretty sure that’s the name.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Maybe. However, I am worried about private armies built by and for corporations. Ever hear of , um…. Blackwater. yea I’m pretty sure that’s the name.

        Are you equally concerned about public armies? If not, why not?

  • I think most people have simply never considered these ideas.

    • These ideas are quite old, and are often re-mentioned; there’s been plenty of time for their popularity to spread and crescendo, if people were interested in them.

  • g

    Robin, your link at “seems” doesn’t appear to me to do anything to support the claim that campaign spending is ineffective. The abstract, as quoted by Tyler, says the following things, and I don’t think any of them has much to do with your claim.

    1. Individuals rather than “special interests” are the main source of politicians’ campaign contributions.

    2. Campaign giving is a “normal good” in the economic sense.

    3. Campaign contributions have made up about the same fraction of GDP for the last hundred years.

    4. Studies don’t give much support for the claim that campaign contributions effectively buy legislators’ votes.

    5. In fact, if you do the statistics the way the authors prefer, it turns out that there’s little relationship between campaign contributions and legislators’ votes.

    At the risk of repeating myself: None of these things seems to me to bear in the least on the question of campaign *spending* affects the votes of *the electorate* or, if so, how strongly it does so. And isn’t that exactly the question that determines whether “shallow” voters, easily influenced by advertisements, are a problem?

    [Edited to add: When I first tried to post this I got a message saying “You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.” That was my only attempt to post a comment here in at least the last week; probably, in fact, the last month. This seems suboptimal.]

    • See here.

      • Jared Barton

        Prof Hanson,

        There are many good papers on the effect campaign spending has on vote shares, but Levitt’s ought not be considered among them. Without going into excessive detail, there are (at least) two major issues with estimating the effect of campaign spending on vote share:

        1) candidate quality is difficult to measure, and better quality candidates probably receive more contributions and thus have higher spending, and

        2) endogeneity between spending and (expected) vote shares. My giving (and thus candidate spending) is a function of how likely I think you are to win, or your effort in getting resources (and spending them) is a function of the “closeness” of the election. These are two (by no means exclusive) possibilities discussed in this literature.

        Levitt’s solution for (1) is creative (estimate the effect using fixed effects of repeat challengers), but probably not very good (if we’re facing off again, one of us *won last time and is in Congress* and the other one had to get a day job. Those are *not* candidates of the same quality as two years ago).

        He does not address (2) in any way, which is unfortunate, as it is the much larger difficulty that writers in this literature have struggled with since Jacobson (1978). Authors who have addressed (2)–usually with some form of TSLS or another–have found campaign spending to have significantly larger and nontrivial effects on vote share. Prof Stratmann is among those researchers who have findings consistent with this description.

        Now, I am willing to concede that the effects are not make-or-break: as most estimates are the coefficient on a logged spending variable, and spending is quite high (often), the translation into dollars per percentage point of vote share are not huge. They are not nearly as small, however, as Levitt’s estimate would suggest.

      • Even if more campaign spending gives more candidates votes, if more interest group spending does not give more firm favors, there is not so much of a problem of interest groups buying policy.

      • g

        “Not so much”, perhaps, but that’s not the same as “not much”. Interest groups could try to buy policy in (at least) two ways: by getting their preferred candidates in, or by donating to candidates independently of preference in the hope of influencing their subsequent behaviour. You’ve argued that the latter is not a big concern, but the former seems like as big a problem.

  • William H. Stoddard

    The primary function of voting is the manufacture of consent. The fewer voters you have taking part, the less persuasively you can claim that the public actually supports your policies. Actually making decisions is not really what voting is about.

    • If each person voting less often would reduce the appearance of consent, why don’t we have each person vote more often to increase that appearance? Why not have each person vote on twenty issues every two weeks? Why doesn’t our not doing that threaten our appearance of consent?

      • William H. Stoddard

        I don’t know. That’s a good question.

        But I’d note that I was talking about how many people vote. You are talking about how many people vote how often. Those are not the same question. The marginal increase in consent may fall off after the first vote.

  • J

    “They’d elect smart foremen”

    Why do you think this? Actually, I think all of you ideas here assume facts not in evidence, so to speak. A juror might pay more attention, or they might decide they’re voting for party X no matter what, or might base their vote on some irrational criteria.

    Also, I don’t know who you assume will be deciding who these “non-shallow” voters are, but you wildly overestimate their resistance to becoming tyrants.

    Your whole premise assumes shallow voters make “wrong” choices. How do you know that (other than via outcome bias)?

    • Servant

      “Why do you think this?”

      That’s because our system already have this (except for the randomization). The US have divided itself into States, and each State gets to elect the Electors, and those Electors vote for the President and Vice-President in the Electoral College. The Framers believed that, by allowing the people to vote for the Electors, the people will always vote for the wisest person who will be more able to cast an informed vote.

      No way that our Electoral College might somehow be FLAWED.

  • Selecting very small number of voters at random to be a de facto parliament would move the country into very leftist direction. Right now 90% of legislators come from top 10% wealthiest group, or something like that. If parliament represented median person instead of coalition of the upper middle class and the wealthy – you can guess the result.

    • I was talking not about a random parliament, but about a larger group of random voters to choose representatives.

  • Newerspeak

    Politics is about praise and condemnation of high-prestige groups, and signaling one’s affiliation with same.

    People are reluctant to propose big structural changes that don’t clearly favor some high-prestige identity group. If you don’t know how your group(s) will fare under the new regime, the change isn’t that interesting to you.

    Status quo bias is obviously a factor.

    Did anyone talk about electing senators directly before the Senate started to favor big business? Flat Taxes and Loser Pays court rules might also have interesting histories.

  • stencil

    The problem is not the voters, it’s the candidates, both for election and for re-election. And so…
    Fill Congressional vacancies by lot, drawn from the pool of voters. Disenfranchise shirkers. Permit second and subsequent terms by vote as is current practice. Fill senatorial vacancies by lot from that State’s Congressional delegation. Permit second and subsequent terms etc. Fill Executive vacancies by lot from the Senate. Rinse, repeat. The cursus honorum worked pretty well for a couple of centuries.

  • What would be cool is political product placement in TV shows.

  • “Juries – randomly select a small jury of voters to participate in each election. Each juror chosen would know they have a much better chance of making a difference, and so would get more bribes.”


    • In a national election, “small” could be 100,000. And we don’t have to publish their names, or give people a way to verifiability prove they are a juror.

  • Matt

    Have voters and politicians take a lengthy online multiple-choice quiz on possible bills and then match the voter with the politician they have most in common with.

    Let people decide which federal programs half of their taxes would go to, and then send them a prospectus on how that money is doing.

    I like your rotation idea, but instead make it a lottery so it’s completely random, and then allow people to trade.

    Let people buy extra votes and sell ones they don’t want.

    Tell Puff Daddy to shut the hell up.

    Let people sign their vote over to others they trust more, kind of like power of attorney.

  • improbable

    I suspect there’s just a lot of momentum attached to “one man one vote”. It’s simple to state and simple to implement.

    To run a “Rotation” (or randomised) election system, you need some kind of voters’ roll, and you have to trust whoever is doing the randomising not to cheat. These are both easier to achieve today than 200 years ago.

  • Michael Turner

    “Why are all those folks, so very concerned that firms with free speech might manipulate shallow voters, so uninterested in these options?”

    I’m concerned, but I’m also very interested in ideas like Deliberative Polling, which roughly matches some of the ideas you list.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I really like your juries idea; there is probably a balance in size needed between representative of the population and small enough so that they pay attention. Asimov has an extreme version of this – one voter.

    What about a more traditional idea: compulsory voting followed by a questionaire about the positions of the candidates on various issues, with some fine/reward for the questionnaire.

    The idea behind having the questionaire afterwards is that it doesn’t restrict the franchise, but still provides incentives to bone up on the subject.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Why are all those folks, so very concerned that firms with free speech might manipulate shallow voters, so uninterested in these options?

    Well, I’d start by supposing that they’d never heard about them at all 🙂
    Or at least not in a salient enough way to register. Also, all your changes are very, very hard to implement. Probably constitutional changes in many states, and getting the entrenched groups who benifit from the current system to accept, etc… Regulating advertising is quite trivial in comparison.

  • Rob L

    This seems like an oversimplification, to say the least. There are precisely two categories of voters- the shallow and the non-shallow? It’s really that simple?

    It seems more likely that we can all be influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the application of cognitive pressure over time. The goal of most political ads isn’t to convince outright, but to define the conversation and apply cognitive pressure. While we (probably) can’t reasonably or fairly enforce the honesty of political discussion, we should be able to modulate the volume so that people have a chance to hear other points of view (if they want to, which is another problem).

    Juries – randomly select a small jury of voters to participate in each election. Each juror chosen would know they have a much better chance of making a difference.

    …And since they don’t necessarily have a vested interest in the major issues at stake, they would probably be more susceptible to social pressure or bribery. Ditto for ‘Rotation’, and ‘Foremen’. ‘Topic’ seems likely to attract more activists than specialists.

    I don’t really understand the desire to contrive Rube-Goldberg political devices instead of just admitting that there is a possibility for undue and unwanted (but very persistent) influence from well-financed groups with solely self-serving interests, and then taking steps to encourage a more level playing field. Encourage ideological competition on merit, not volume.

    • And how do we decide who has enough “merit” to be allowed to speak?

      • Rob L

        Everyone has merit to speak, but not to run the conversation. I think limiting corporations is an obvious step because- by definition and legal obligation- they only have interest in increasing their own value.

        Again, I have no illusions that you could or should compel “honest” speech, but I see no problem with putting a cap on the “volume” of speech by limiting the amount of money that can be spent.

        How do we decide who has merit enough to be considered a non-shallow voter, eligible for participation in your alternatives?

  • Clifford Nelson

    To the extent possible, have a totally independent “free” press.

    If you want people to make informed decisions don’t you have to provide a means for them to get “non biased” information?
    If people doubt the information, why would they even bother trying to study it and make a decision?

    Perhaps the solution is to educate people to be selective of their information sources and make sure that excellent sources of information are available at no cost (since we are cheap and usually will substitute a freebee without regard to quality – hey man! it’s free!).

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, have you read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein?

    A lot of your very refreshing thoughts on variations we could use in our political/social/judicial/economic/academic processes remind me of a speech given by Professor de la Paz to the Lunar constitutional congress about the dangers of following the past. he’d suggested things like having a bicameral legislature where one house could pass legislation and the other could revoke it, but neither could do both, or for electing representatives based on alphabetical order of names.

    Could you do a post about whether and how we should use the past not only as examples but also as a way of categorizing thinking. For example, Plato set us thinking of government as a question of who is in charge, but this is maybe not optimal way of approaching the question.

  • Buck Farmer

    Also, I think there was an Asimov short story about a world where each election only one voter was chosen by a super computer.

    The Voter would then answer a series of questions which the super computer would use to figure out how policy should move forward.

  • David J

    My thoughts would fall along the same theme of individuals voting for a more local representative and then those representatives voting for the larger aggregation. “Local” is a detail but one possibility is:
    A) Individuals vote for their country representative
    B) County representatives vote for their state representatives
    C) State representatives vote for their federal representatives

    Now, to take this even further I would propose that individuals ONLY pay taxes to the county; the county then pays the state and the state pays the federal government.

    The legal and judicial side of things things would probably stay generally the same but all funding and voting would be one-way: from the county (local) level through the state and onto the federal level. The federal and state governments would never be in a position to withhold funds from the levels below them. And each vote would have a larger absolute influence on the election.

    Basically expanding the concept of the Electoral College that we currently have. The risk of not-electing someone who would have the popular vote is worth the overall benefit of more influential voting. Besides, if we don’t end up having a popular election then there would be no way of knowing who would have won the popular vote anyway.

    • Violet

      This would make the system more majoritarian.

      A good system would allow fresh ideas to travel upwards and have lots of competing ideas on the decision level.

      Not a two-party system where there are few realistic alternatives.

  • Robert Laing

    Perhaps it is not the ads themselves directly. as many tend to believe the same things as the other people around them. A community of such persons will be unlikely to have independent thoughts of its own; instead they will draw on the environment. To the extent that such a trait prevails in the general population, any individual or group that has a) the capactity for independent thought and b) resources will have considerable power to influence how the public votes on any particular issue, or even to influence whether or not the public even perceives an issue in the first place.

    I think it unlikely that anyone holding such power would be much interested in encouraging the public to make informed decisions, and this may explain why the public so seldom does so.

  • James Andrix

    It’s easier for people to think of prohibition as something government is supposed to do. Outlawing spending on X seems like a normal kind of law. You can’t murder, steal, put lead in paint, or pay more than $x for ads with a candidates name in within 6 months of an election.

    It’s hard to consider changing the way votes are counted as a normal kind of law. (and It probably would require a constitutional amendment) So it’s a big scary change.

  • Good points, Robin. I’ve long thought about this topic of how to get better governance be getting rid of the problems that democracy creates. Not being a political scientist, I might be going over well known ground, but it seems obvious to me that democracy has the huge benefit of eliminating extreme civil unrest. People riot and revolt when they want change but can’t make it happen, so they get angry. The more people feel like they are in control the less likely they are to cause extreme civil unrest (any free society will always have visible unrest because some people are going to try to gain status by being outsiders).

    What I’ve thought would be a good system is something akin to what China does nominally, even though in practice their governmental process is far more controlled from the top than what they want to make it appear. At the local level, people elect representatives who have the job of voting for them. The few hundred people in a village pick someone to represent them at higher levels of government. From there on up it’s the job of the representatives to vote for higher level representatives (think congressmen), who in turn elect the top representatives (PM, cabinet positions). And those people have the job of controlling the civil service indirectly by setting policy and forcing out high-level administrators who are acting in ways opposed to what the representatives want.

    Not that it really happens this way, but it seems like a pretty good system to me: you just have to pick someone who you think would vote the way you would if you had time to really think about the issues, and then pass the job up to someone who will dedicate the time necessary to make that decision.

    Just my arm chair thoughts on political reform.

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