Do Election Interventions Work?

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Eli Berman, Michael Callen, Clark Gibson, and James D. Long looks at the effects of election interventions in fragile states, specifically Afghanistan. The results are encouraging:

International development agencies invest heavily in institution building in fragile states, including expensive interventions to support democratic elections. Yet little evidence exists on whether elections enhance the domestic legitimacy of governments. Using the random assignment of an innovative election fraud-reducing intervention in Afghanistan, we find that decreasing electoral misconduct improves multiple survey measures of attitudes toward government, including: (1) whether Afghanistan is a democracy; (2) whether the police should resolve disputes; (3) whether members of parliament provide services; and (4) willingness to report insurgent behavior to security forces.

Why Do We Vote? So We Can Tell People We Voted

We once wrote about reasons to not vote, at least from an economist's perspective. Since a single vote almost never alters an outcome, what's in it for the voter?

If a given citizen doesn't stand a chance of having her vote affect the outcome, why does she bother? In Switzerland, as in the U.S., "there exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls," [Patricia] Funk writes. "As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn't, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community."

A New Website on Electoral Systems

Joshua Tucker of the Monkey Cage points to a new website designed to collect information on voter behavior in various electoral systems and educate the public about different systems. Here's the rundown, from University of Montreal political scientist André Blais:

A team of scientists has launched the website The website has two objectives: inform the public about the various electoral systems that exist in the world to elect state leaders, and collect data on voters’ behaviour under these systems.  We provide information about four electoral systems: one round plurality, two round runoff, alternative vote, and approval vote. The electoral system that is used for the election of the Pope is also described. The visitor is invited to imagine how he/she would vote if the pope was elected under each of these four electoral systems. The study is part of a larger international project designed to better understand the functioning of electoral democracy (Making Electoral Democracy Work). For an example of how such data can help us understand how electoral rules affect vote choice, see Blais et al. 2012. "Assessing the psychological and mechanical impact of electoral rules : A quasi-experiment." Electoral Studies 31 :829-837.

A Perverse Incentive to Not Vote?

From a reader named Kyle Gregory:

I decided about a year ago that I am not going to vote and happened to find a neat little trick for those of us who take this stance.
I'm not sure about other states, but in Virginia, jury duty is determined by voter registration. I moved a couple of years ago, but never changed my voter registration since I didn't plan on voting. I recently received notification of jury duty at my parents' address where I am still registered to vote. The notification form has a section to fill out stating that you have not lived in that county in the past 6 months, which automatically disqualifies you from jury duty! So, as long as I do not want to vote, I am also exempt from having to do jury duty!

Waiting to Vote: $1 Billion Opportunity Cost?

I was on the public-radio show Marketplace Tuesday evening, interviewed about waiting (sparked, I assume, by lines of people waiting to vote).  I never vote on Election Day and never have to wait to vote: I take advantage of Texas’s early voting, which is quick and easy. I estimate the opportunity cost of people waiting in line on Tuesday — the value of their time — was around $1 billion.  Those resources would have been much better spent creating facilities for early voting in all states. For that sum, a lot of election workers’ salaries could be paid and polling facilities could be kept open from late October through early November.  An additional virtue is that more people might vote, and expanding democracy would be a good thing.  Who couldn’t support this reallocation of resources?

An Alternative to Democracy?

With the U.S. presidential election nearly here, everyone seems to have politics on their mind.  Unlike most people, economists tend to have an indifference towards voting.  The way economists see it, the chances of an individual’s vote influencing an election outcome is vanishingly small, so unless it is fun to vote, it doesn’t make much sense to do so.  On top of that, there are a number of theoretical results, most famously Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which highlight how difficult it is to design political systems/voting mechanisms that reliably aggregate the preferences of the electorate.

Mostly, these theoretical explorations into the virtues and vices of democracy leave me yawning.

Last spring, however, my colleague Glen Weyl mentioned an idea along these lines that was so simple and elegant that I was amazed no one had ever thought of it before.  In Glen’s voting mechanism, every voter can vote as many times as he or she likes.  The catch, however, is that you have to pay each time you vote, and the amount you have to pay is a function of the square of the number of votes you cast. 

What's Your Favorite "Edutainment" Podcast?

Freakonomics Radio has been nominated as one of the top “edutainment” podcasts on iTunes, and the biggest vote-getter will be featured on iTunes in July. You can vote here. I will warn you, the competition is very stiff -- we’re up against Radiolab (which would probably get my vote, to be honest), the TED Talks podcast, and some other formidables.

I realize it is the height of hypocrisy for us, the guys who say that voting is overvalued, to ask for your vote. But if you don't mind voting for hypocrites, go ahead and tick the box.

Are Voters Just Rooting for Clothes?

Matthew Yglesias recently noted that the very rich are unhappy with President Obama because he would like to increase the taxes on the very rich.  Although this might be true, the number of people unhappy with Obama exceeds the number of people who comprise the very rich.  So why are many of the non-rich unhappy with Obama?  And why are so many other people quite happy with our current president? 

Perhaps the answer is similar to a story frequently told about sports fans.

Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine declared his hatred of Charles Barkley.  At the time, Sir Charles was an All-Star for the Philadelphia 76ers.  Sometime after this declaration, though, Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns.  As a fan of the Suns, my friend changed his tune.  With Sir Charles in Phoenix, my friend was now a fan of Barkley.

More recently, LeBron James was an extremely popular athlete in Cleveland.  But when he changed his uniform to something from Miami, his popularity in Ohio plummeted.  

These stories are not uncommon among sports fans.  In fact, Jerry Seinfeld once observed that fans who behave like this are essentially “rooting for clothes.”

The Politics of Political Prediction Markets

For years, I have argued that the best way to track what really matters through election season is to follow the political prediction markets. The one difficulty is that these markets aren’t really available to the general public.  Sure, the University of Iowa runs a market, but because it’s for research purposes, the maximum bet is set at only $500. And while I track InTrade closely, they’re based in Ireland, and are frowned upon by American regulators. Likewise, Betfair won’t deal with American customers.  But all that may be about to change.

Democracy, Live and in Concert

At Saturday’s concert by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, the program offered a menu for the second half: The audience was to vote on whether it wished to hear the Tschaikovsky Serenade, the Dvorák Serenade, or Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet (arranged for small string orchestra). After the intermission, the conductor briefly discussed each composer and described each piece, then asked for a show of hands.

I was worried: What if a plurality favored the Schubert (my choice), but the Dvorák had been a close second, with a majority of people vehemently against hearing the Schubert performed by anything other than four string instruments? I don’t imagine that second-preference voting would have been possible (fancier voting schemes regrettably generate larger transactions costs), so we would have listened to the Schubert even though more people would have been better off with the Dvorák.

Fortunately, a small majority of the audience shared my preference and we achieved the first-best (and heard a wonderful performance)!