Super-Voting Scenario

I recently posted on a hypothetical “kilo-vote” scenario intended to help show that most of us don’t vote mainly to influence who wins the election. However, the ability of any given scenario to convince a reader of such a result depends on many details of the scenario, and of reader beliefs about behavior. So on reflection, I’ve come up with a new scenario I think can persuade more people, because in it fewer things change from the prototypical voting scenario.

Imagine that polls stayed open for a month before the election deadline, and that a random one percent of voters were upgraded to “super-voters,” who can privately vote up to twenty times, as long as they wait at least an hour between votes. When a super-voter votes all twenty times, their votes are doubled, and counted as forty votes. “Privately” means no one else ever knows that this person was a super-voter. (Yes that could be hard to achieve, but just assume that it is achieved somehow.)

To a voter who cares mainly about picking the election winner, and who casts only a tiny fraction of the votes, the value of voting is proportional to their number of votes. Twice the votes gives twice the value. If such a person votes when they are an ordinary voter, then they should be greatly tempted to vote twenty times as a super-voter; their costs aren’t much more than twenty times their costs from voting once, yet for that effort they get forty votes.

I feel pretty sure that most of the people assigned to super-voter status would not in fact vote twenty times. Yes I haven’t tested this, but I’d be willing to bet on it. Most voters care a lot more about seeming to have done their duty than they do about maximizing any new opportunities that arise from being assigned super-voter status. So most super-voters would think they’d done their duty with their first vote. After all, if voting once is good enough for ordinary voters who are not assigned to super-voter status, why shouldn’t that be good enough for super-voters as well?

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  • David Condon

    I agree with both scenarios, but I think more would super-vote under this scenario than buy under the previous scenario. I think the switch from a time cost to a monetary cost is an important one.

  • charlies

    What these posts are trying to get at is referred to as “expressive voting.”
    No one claims that it does not exist; the fact that it is widespread is a premise of most of the political science/social choice literature on voting.

    • But some people do dispute how important it is, so these sort of hypotheticals can help us to resolve those disputes.

  • aluchko

    I agree with the super-voter claim. Though it made me think of an alternate proposal.

    Grant those 1% voters a vote x100, but they don’t find out until they’re in the voting booth that they have a super-vote.

    The fear of potentially having an influential vote and blowing it + the poor intuition around statistics causes everyone to pay much closer attention to politics.

    The downside is the potential stress may drive people away from voting and depress voter turnout. You may need to couple it with another tactic to improve turnout.

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    I personally vote out of a sense of duty rather than the idea my vote will have a chance of effecting the outcome, and I believe the same would the be case if I was selected as a super-voter. This post convinces me of your case in a way that your previous post didn’t.

  • Patrick LaVictoire

    I agree that most people would not engage in such super-voting, but a significant number of activists (and a significant number of people in the effective altruist community, including me) would indeed super-vote (and openly spread the meme of doing so to anyone else with similar policy priorities).

    Walk a couple extra blocks every morning and evening for a few weeks, in order to have forty votes? It wouldn’t make a difference in the general election for president/senator/governor/representative where I live, but there are enough local elections and primaries here that matter and would be close.

  • Lord

    For most I agree unless the cost of voting were exceptionally low or it was known that there would be an exceptionally close and important election. Even then only a dedicated few would consider it remotely worthwhile and even they could not expect it to change anything, being randomly selected, other than add noise.

  • AJ Li

    >“Privately” means no one else ever knows that this person was a super-voter. (Yes that could be hard to achieve, but just assume that it is achieved somehow.)

    I don’t quite get this part. If I disclose the fact that I’m a super voter, am I going to get arrested or something, like in an NDA? Or does it just mean that I have no way to prove that I’m a super voter to anyone else?

    • Yes, it means you have no way to prove, and so people don’t believe your claims if you make them.

      • AJ Li

        Why is it a necessary part of the scenario? In normal voting it is easily provable that you voted, right? Why specifically disallow the disclosure of additional votes?

      • To isolate the motive of influencing the outcome from motives to impress one’s associates.

  • HM

    I think you shouldn’t neglect the coordination issue in voting. Let’s make another hypothetical.

    Would you be willing to make a binding contract with you ideological brethren that whoever becomes a super-voter should exercise that right?

    Surely you would, as a 10 point-swing in the election is likely to be decisive. A 1% risk of voting twenty times is worth that price.

    Would this contract be self-enforcing?

    No, because there is a huge free riding problem.

    Taken together, I think it is problematic with the “irrational voting argument” that start from an observation that a contract is not incentive compatible, and conclude that the act is irrational and only expressive.

    A more productive way to view the issue is that we have an implicit contract to provide the public good of voting (public good for our ideological brethren + public good for all with increasing legitimac). It is enforced as most norm for public goods provision: indoctrination to internalize norms, increased status for conformers, etc.

    Few would say that it is irrational and only expressive to not throw litter on the ground when no police is around, or hand in a lost wallet, etc etc. Neither is voting.

    However, given that it is this implicit contract/norm/public good provisioning thing rather than simple private rationality, I fully agree with Robin’s aim of attacking standard political economy ways of modelling the decision.

    • Even if we might want to coordinate to commit together to be super-voters, the fact that we fail to coordinate and yet still vote ordinarily suggests are motives are different there.

  • free_agent

    This is all somewhat interesting, but it seems that more data is needed before speculation will gain anything. What is the social and psychological dynamics of voting? If you change the voting system, how will people’s behavior change? How will the social discourse change, and what changes will propagate to individual behavior? We have to study actual humans and societies to learn these.

    • Asking people what they would do under a hypothetical alternative IS data. Its technical name is a “survey”.

  • Cambias


    This is the question I always ask whenever an “improved” voting scheme is proposed: why?

    Sure, one man one vote has flaws, and the system can be gamed. But all the alternatives have flaws, and can be gamed — and the more complex and fiddly the voting system is, the less people trust it.

    I guarantee that everyone would immediately suspect the ruling party of packing the ranks of “super-voters” with its own supporters, and then there would be a new round of clever, complicated alternative voting systems to fix that problem. Leading to even less trust.

    There seems to be a personality type which likes alternative voting systems and which believes they can actually solve problems. Unhappily, the most likely result would be to restrict voting to men who have armed followers.

    • This proposal isn’t to improve the system, it is just to test theories of voter motivaiton.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Robin, what’s your point here? I fear you’re attacking a strawman.

    Do most people (or most academics who study this stuff) really think that people vote mainly to influence the result? I doubt that.

    I think most people vote out of a sense of social duty.

    In democracies that sense of social duty is taught in schools and encouraged by all sorts of social institutions.

    While I’m not sure voting is about signalling, I think you’re correct that it’s not mainly about influencing results. But then I think that’s what most people already believe.

    • It may be that most people don’t believe something, yet don’t know how to show it false. (OT: I think this is the case, philosophically, with respect to skepticism.)

      Voting out of a sense of duty, however, isn’t exactly counterposed to voting to influence results. You can do something out of a sense of duty where the duty is to exert as much favorable influence as possible. That is, there are non-Kantian conceptions of duty. To be more exact about the sense of duty involved, I’d say it is the duty to do one’s share, not to maximize results. (Thus, if the number of voters drops, it is likely to continue dropping, because “one’s share” depends on what others do; whereas maximizing favorable influence would increase the incentive to vote when fewer citizens do so.)

    • truth_machine

      I personally know two kinds of people … those who deeply care about consequences and vote because of that, and people don’t believe that their vote matters and don’t vote at all. I know *of* other kinds of people … like smarmy journalists and academics who think they’re above it all.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I deeply care about consequences, and I vote, but that’s not why I vote.

        I’m well aware that my vote is almost astronomically unlikely to influence the result.

        I vote out of a sense of duty.

        Maybe I’m weird.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Not only would your votes count double, but it would also be 40 times more worthwhile to investigate candidates and decide exactly where and how to vote. Or to look at it another way, you could amortize the fixed cost of deciding how to vote, much more effectively, and should therefore be yet more eager to vote.

    • David Condon

      A similar effect could be achieved by reducing the number of elections per year, and would be much easier to get the public on board with.

  • Ken Arromdee

    This is stupid. The cost of spending an hour to cast a vote doesn’t scale linearly with the number of hours. Generally, the cost of an hour is lower if you have spare time and higher if you do not, and since you only have a limited amount of spare time, that makes successive votes much more expensive.

    • That is why you can spread your votes over a whole month.

  • citizen15

    I must have different motivations than most people. I’m pretty sure that I would cast all the supervotes. I don’t understand the notion of voting out of a sense of “duty”. Duty to whom? You actually increase everyone else’s influence when you don’t vote, so not voting is a selfless, altruistic act.

  • Philon

    Democrats (small ‘d’) or egalitarians might have ethical reservations about having their voting activity count for more than that of other voters: they might refuse to exercise their super-voter status for ethical/ideological reasons.

  • truth_machine

    Pure circular reasoning. “I feel pretty sure that what I believe is true.” I myself am quite confident that everyone I know would vote all 20 times, but my circles don’t consist of disaffected jerkoffs like Hanson and his friends.

  • free_agent

    One test is whether people will expend effort to affect the votes of others. (If one does not consider one’s vote as having a practical consequence, then one will not consider others’ votes as having a practical consequence.) But people do expend effort to propagate their political views. Similarly, people do spend money to affect the votes of others.