What Me, Vote?

Much of what comes out of economics can be said to be either (a) obvious, or (b) trivial. Paul Samuelson once nominated free trade as his favourite economic finding that didn’t fall into either of these categories. Another is the median voter theorem – the notion that if there is only one issue, both parties’ policy positions will converge on the preferences of the voter in the middle of the distribution.

Now there are plenty of problems with the median voter theorem. It starts to break down in the presence of multiple issues, it doesn’t fare so well with uncertainty, and so on. But there are plenty of instances where it can help to sharpen one’s thinking. Take for example this quote from today’s Crikey email by their resident psephologist, Charles Richardson:

One further point has been suggested to me: if compulsory voting really advantages the left, you would expect the ALP to have been more successful than its counterparts in other western democracies, almost all of which have optional voting. But if anything, the reverse is true: Labor has been out of office federally for all but 16 years since 1949. Perhaps with optional voting they would have been even worse off, but the case is far from proven.

If you ignore the median voter theorem, and assume that parties don’t adapt their policies to fit voters’ beliefs, then this might be the case. But would a party that kept losing elections really not adapt its policies? Maybe for an election or two, but not forever. The real test isn’t whether compulsory voting made the ALP win more often. Instead, the question is whether the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924 pushed all Australian parties a notch to the left, something that’s much harder to measure.

In fact, the contention that compulsory voting hurts the left is pretty much demolished by a spate of studies, all of which find compulsory voting gives a small but significant advantage to progressive parties.

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10 Responses to What Me, Vote?

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    “compulsory voting gives a small but significant advantage to progressive parties”

    In particular the Greens and the Democrats.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Actually, I’m not so sure about that — I would’ve thought that most of their supporters are the types who would vote under a voluntary system. To be precise, the US studies find it gives the US Dems a boost, so I’d surmise it’d do the same for the ALP.

  3. Sinclair Davidson says:

    We had a look at the data under different scenarios. Starting off with those who’d vote if it were voluntary, then if those who think it should be compulsory, then those who think it should be compulsory and who’s vote anyway, and so on. The ALP benefitted from compulsory voting last time (when they were very uncompetitive) and the minor left parties always benefit. So a lot of the ‘protest’ vote that would have stayed home ends up at the Greens and Democrats. Overall, however, compulsory votong does not determine the identity of government (as best we can work out), but does lead to concentrated pork barrelling in easily identifyable electorates (it may reduce the totality of pork – that we can’t test). It also constitutes a wealth transfer from individuals who wouldn’t vote to party workers (who don’t have to ‘get out the vote’).

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    That’s interesting, and accords with my understanding of the broader literature – a small but positive effect on the vote of left parties. I’d misunderstood your first comment to suggest that Labor would be just as well off under compulsory or voluntary voting.

    How do you get around the problem that Simon Jackman highlights in one of his compulsory voting papers – that those who return a mail-in election survey are probably much more civically minded than those who don’t?

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    In the end, we can’t ‘solve’ that problem, what we do is have reduced samples. So those who say they’d vote AND who say voting should be compulsory would probably vote anyway – if just that group voted who would win the election? It’s not ideal, but it’s probably the best we can do.

  6. Sacha Blumen says:

    Without having read the studies, I’d just like to comment there are times when voluntary voting does not hurt protest/minor parties vis a vis compulsory voting – think of Ross Perot in the 1992 US Presidential election.

    In my personal experience, most Greens/Democrat voters are usually fairly committed to vote in a certain way – and would definitely vote in a voluntary voting system.

  7. Sacha Blumen says:

    It might be useful to study the differences in how minor party voters allocate preferences in optional preferential voting systems as opposed to how they do it in compulsory preferential voting systems for this problem…

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Just discovered that Alfred Deakin was a big supported of compulsory voting. This individual, according to Windschuttle’s book, was also a strong supporter of the white Australia policy. Violence and coersion were obviously second nature to this man …

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    I did a little bit of media on this on Friday, though I think (ok, I hope) that they mangled my first grab in the transcription.

    http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2005/s1471891.htm

  10. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Very nice. Well done!

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