Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, June 17, 2005

Democracy and Superficial Voters

Half Sigma and Futurepundit recently blogged about an interesting story in which people were able to guess the outcomes of elections by cueing in on a superficial trait: whether a candidate had a “baby face” or not. Apparently voters dislike candidates with baby faces, even though there is no correlation between looks and any measurable competency. In some sense, this might be like not voting for someone because the candidate has dark skin or long hair. If people are aware of this bias, maybe more people will try to ignore their prejudice.

However, there is a deeper issue here. How much do we really think about issues and whether one candidate or the other speaks to those issues? In local elections, I would not even know what are the issues; let alone what positions the candidates have on those issues. That’s a pity, but the nature of democracy is that there is little incentive for each of us to expend time and effort to learn about the issues and the candidates. My vote makes little difference in any election, and if I’m going to expend effort on something, I would like to see something in return.

Learning about the candidates and the issues is an act of charity, in a sense. Our effort benefits not just us but potentially everyone who would be affected by the outcome of the election. If we all learned about the candidates and the issues, we might elect more competent leaders and have a better government.

There are cases in which really bad people might have been prevented from coming to power if the voters had voted more responsibly: Hitler of Germany and Mugabe of Zimbabwe could have been stopped if the voters in their countries had voted heavily against them in the first place. Democracy is the check we citizens have to prevent the destruction of our liberties. This touches upon a question that was raised by Coyote Blog: what is our most precious right? He thought the right to property was more important, but I would argue that the right to vote is most precious because if that goes, everything goes.

But here’s the issue: how do we motivate people to care about voting? My idea is that we could pay people to care (admittedly, a classic economists’ cure-all). We could ask the candidates to submit an essay, or series of short essays, on what their positions are. They could debate each other in written form. Then the candidates could submit a quiz on their own material. On Election Day, you go to the polls and there would be a place where you could take the quiz. If you score well, you get a nice monetary prize. You would not have to vote to qualify for the prize, but you probably would vote, since you are there.

Candidates would have the incentive to make the quiz based on their main points. They want you to know what their main points are. If they submit stupid questions and stupid answers, you will get irritated at that candidate. And the benefit of this method of political advertising is that even with the cash prize it might be more cost effective as a means of conveying the information than a lot of 30-second political advertisements.

In a nation like India where a lot of people are illiterate, the written material could be turned into audio or even video tapes. The quiz could be set up on a computer screen so that someone with no reading skills could take the test. The departments of motor vehicles in various states have systems like that already. Of course it would be expensive to set all this up. It might be better in the long run to teach everyone to read.

Ideally one day we would be able to do everything on-line: reading the material, taking the quiz, and voting. I might be motivated to care what is happening in the local elections.


  • I think giving incentives to people (to get them to vote after understanding issues) is very important and an excellent idea. Like you correctly pointed out, most people don't even know whom they are voting for (especially at local elections). But incentives like a quiz are probably not going to work because of the "lottery like" concept, often due to the number of voters. In an average polling booth in India, you could easily get a 100,000 voters in a single day, with people waiting in long lines to cast their vote. A contest for that number? may seem surprising...but often it's the same illiterate voters who are best informed. They know their candidates, and know what's been promised to them. Most of the educated voters (in an Indian context) hardly know who is contesting the election from where they are voting. They just go and vote for a party whose ideology they agree with......

    By Blogger Sunil, at 11:44 AM  

  • Hi Sunil
    There are a lot of details here that need to be thought through. I think that I would like to see this first introduced in the primaries to determine each party's candidate for each election. The logistics issue of how do you get 1000's of people to both take the test and to vote in a single place on a single day is an issue. I think there needs to be more polling places and voting and testing machines to make this work. However, we should note that in a queue, the queue most as fast as the slowest node. So if you have enough testing machines, it won't slow down the voting queue at all.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:17 PM  

  • The people in Zimbabwe did vote heavily against zanpf and Mugabe, and we are being punished severely for it now.

    If you want to know how our votes were STOLEN from us then read about the March 31st election night here:“What happened on Thursday night” : An account of how ZANU PF rigged the Parliamentary Elections.

    If you want to read how the system of democracy was rigged to benefit Mugabe and his party, then read our Mauritius Watch Archives.

    We spent 22 weeks in the run-up to the elctions closely monitoring how Mugabe selectively adhered to the SADC protocols in an attempt to convince other African nations that he was a law abiding decent guy. We told the world what was going on, week by week.

    Votes do count, but it takes more than a nation voting to make democracy happen - it takes a world to watch closely and respond immediately to thievery and political crookery; crack down on human rights abuses, political intimidation and victimisation; and ultimately make despots accountable for what they do against their own people.

    That's a battle we're still fighting.

    By Anonymous Sokwanele, at 4:47 PM  

  • Hi Sokwanele
    My best wishes for the people of Zimbabwe. I know that the people of Zimbabwe would definitely vote against Mugabe today if free and fair elections were held but Mugabe wants to hold on to power and he can rig his elections.

    When I mentioned that people of Zimbabwe did not vote heavily enough against Mugabe in the first place I was referring to the original elections that brought Mugabe to power. Of course, there might have been little evidence of Mugabe's true nature at that time. He was a freedom fighter and many of those are great many leaders and many are tyrants.

    I wish the International community would put more pressure on rogues like Mugabe. But if there is no oil in the country, the rest of the world is relatively unconcerned about what goes on in a nation.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:12 PM  

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