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Good for democracy?

Making it easier to vote may backfire

By Chantal Britt

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It’s only logical that making it easier to vote will increase participation. But a surprising new finding shows that the additional voters – often from a lower socioeconomic background – may be more likely to fall prey to influence from special interest groups and lobbyists.

This is the conclusion of the study ‘The Effects of Voting Costs on the Democratic Process and Public Finances’.

The authors of the study, Roland Hodler, an economics professor at the University of St Gallen and researchers at the universities of Lucerne and Basel, looked closely at the implications of a decrease in the costs of voting.

These so-called costs include the convenience – or inconvenience – involved in the process such as registering to vote, physically going to polls or queuing. As Hodler tells, increasing the number of citizens exercising their voting rights does not necessarily result in government policies that target the problems of a broader section of society. Who benefits from this electorate change?

R.H.: It is typically assumed that lower voting costs should increase participation by citizens with relatively low levels of income and education, and that their increased participation leads to policy changes in their favour.

We argue that lower voting costs may primarily increase participation by voters who are poorly informed and more likely to base their voting decisions on campaign ads rather than a thorough analysis of the issue at stake.

This, in turn, may increase the influence of well-organized special interest groups who can finance political campaigns. As a result, the true beneficiaries of lower voting costs may be these well-organized groups that can run expensive campaigns rather than citizens with lower socio-economic status. Which citizens benefit most from the decisions reached in popular initiatives?

R.H.: Economists typically think that those positioned in the middle of the political spectrum have the most to gain from popular votes. After all, whenever the status quo favours those on the left or the right, those in the middle should be able to propose a less extreme policy and find a majority supporting this policy change.

Thus, when it comes to questions on redistribution or the size of the welfare state, economists typically think that the degree of redistribution is determined to satisfy the middle class.

I find this line of argument quite convincing, but I would add that popular votes may also benefit well organized interest groups that can run expensive campaigns.

R.H.: This argument is often made, and represents the basis for quests for compulsory voting or lower voting costs. It is probably true.

However, we show in our study that there is no simple remedy. Lowering voting costs without ensuring that those participating are reasonably well-informed may backfire, as it may increase the clout of well organized groups rather than helping less privileged citizens. What is the danger of interest groups trying to sway less informed voters?

R.H.: The ideal of a democracy is “one man, one vote” rather than “one dollar (or Swiss Franc), one vote.” But if special interest groups manage to influence the less informed voters with expensive political campaigns, we tend to move away from the former and towards the latter. Our study shows that this may actually be happening to some extent as lower voting costs may reduce welfare spending and taxes for large profitable firms. Should campaign funding be limited?

R.H.: This is a big debate in the United States. Personally, I am not necessarily in favour of legal limits on contributions to political campaigns, but I am strongly in favour of transparency. As a voter, I want to know what firms, lobby groups and others contribute to political campaigns and political parties. Isn’t the whole point of direct democracy that you have the broadest possible participation – at the risk that the results may contradict the government’s recommendations and rational arguments?

R.H.: In most popular votes, rational arguments cannot give us an unambiguous verdict for one or the other side. Typically there are rational arguments in favour and against the proposed policy change, and it depends on the individual citizen’s circumstances whether she should rationally be in favour or against the proposed change.

Also I do not believe that governments are benevolent and omniscient. I have therefore absolutely no problem with popular votes contradicting the government’s recommendation.

I guess one of the most important popular votes in Switzerland during my lifetime was the decision not to join the European Economic Area [in 1992]. In this vote the outcome contradicted – and even shocked – the government and large parts of the political establishment.

After the vote, many politicians and commentators thought that the Swiss people had taken an extremely unwise decision. (So did I.) Today, however many of them would agree – at least off the record – that it probably was a rather wise decision.

Having said all this, I do not believe that direct democratic decisions are necessarily the better, the more citizens participate. I think it is crucial that those taking part are reasonably well- informed about the proposed policy change. Based on your findings, do you think that indirect or representative democracy works better than direct democracy?

R.H.: Personally, I am a strong supporter of direct democratic institutions. However, based on the findings in our study, I would not subscribe to the idea that direct democracy works best if nearly everybody participates. Therefore, I am not in favour of compulsory voting.

I am also sceptical whether e-voting would improve direct democratic decision-making. If casting your vote has zero costs and can be done within seconds on an electronic device, too many ill-informed citizens may end up voting based on the latest TV advert.

I rather prefer some non-trivial voting costs so that only those citizens find it worthwhile participating who thought at least a little bit about the issue at stake and who are reasonably confident that the vote they will cast will really be in their interest.

Democracy study

The authors of the study, based on empirical analysis from 26 Swiss cantons, found:  

Lower voting costs due to postal voting are related to higher turnout and lower average education of participants as well as lower knowledge on the political issues they were deciding on.

The introduction of postal voting seems related to lower - and not higher - government welfare expenditures as well as to lower business tax rates.

The researchers argue that “high participation in democratic decision-making is not a value in itself. Rather participants' knowledge on the political decisions at stake is crucial. Lowering voting costs to increase participation might have rather negative side effects when special-interest groups are attracted that try to influence the less well informed in the voting population.

“Therefore, the focus should not only be on reducing voting costs, but also on motivating voters to acquire more political knowledge.

(Source: The Effects of Voting Costs on the Democratic Process and Public Finances, by Roland Hodler, Simon Luechinger and Alois Stutzer. To be published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy)