Monday, August 13, 2007

Protest Voting Gone Wrong

A common objection to lottery-voting is that even those nasty right-wing BNP types get some votes, and if we give them a proportional chance of victory then we face the prospect that they will actually get their way sometimes. I have a number of responses, which may briefly be summed up by saying:

i) That's democracy - people vote for bad outcomes and you might get them...
ii) We can prevent the worst injustices by taking constitutionally protected rights off the democratic agenda.
iii) We might also exclude small, and potentially extreme, minorities by imposing some kind of electoral threshold needed before an alternative gets any chance. Many PR schemes require a party to have something like 5% of the vote to get any seats, so we could similarly say you need 5% of the vote to get any chance.

Most important, I think, is:

iv) Voting is an endogeneous consequence of the political system.

In Britain's FPTP system most people vote Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem because they don't really have much choice. Votes for the others are often seen as 'wasted' because - except in a few cases - they have no chance of winning a seat. The flip-side of this, however, is that if your vote doesn't matter, you can cast it as you like (this expressive view is proposed by Brennan and Lomasky), and therefore it is easy to cast a protest vote - e.g. you can cross the BNP box to register dissatisfaction knowing they won't win anyway.

Sometimes, however, this may go wrong. I knew I'd kept a newspaper cutting of this and, after rummaging round through my unorganized collection of newspaper cuttings, was able to find it to cite in my thesis. (I prefer to be able to give the page number, rather than just citing an online link - this was page 5, by the way).

Following Hamas' surprise electoral victory, caused by mass protest voting, one Fatah supporter is quoted as saying “I voted Hamas so that my own Fatah Party would be shocked and change its ways… I thought Hamas would come second. But this is a game that went too far. Nobody thought Hamas would win – even them. I know lots of people who voted Hamas, who regret it now. If I could vote again, I would vote for Fatah”.

Lottery-voting means that every vote counts, whether you are in a majority or minority you bestow a chance of victory upon whatever option you vote for. This has at least four advantages:

i) There really is an incentive for each person to turn-out - your side could win, and your vote will increase their chances.
ii) Relatedly, since more votes always increase your chances, there is an incentive to persuade as many opponents as possible to join your cause, thus fostering deliberation.
iii) You should always vote sincerely - there's no point increasing the chances of your second choice rather than your first (the one qualification, of course, is if your first might not pass the threshold suggested above - but that could be avoided if the ballot paper includes second preferences to be redistributed).
iv) Since your vote matters, you'd better not cast it irresponsibly - and thus lottery-voting better realizes the educative effects expected of voting by the likes of J S Mill and Carole Pateman.

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