Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

VOTER TURNOUT....Via Brendan Nyhan, here's a fascinating little piece of political science research that even hardened pols might want to pay attention to. A trio of academics decided to test different ways of boosting voter turnout and discovered one sure-fire way of getting dynamite results: send out letters telling people whether they and their neighbors have voted in past elections and promising to send a followup letter after the election. The unsubtle message is: voting records are public information, and if you don't vote this year your neighbors will know about it. So do your civic duty, dammit.

Result: turnout among those who got the letters was a whopping 8.1 percentage points higher than the control group. A sample of the letter the poli sci boffins sent out is at the right.

Now, I know what you're thinking: this is kind of creepy. And sure, it is. But 8 percentage points? Most campaign managers would sell their grandmothers into white slavery for that kind of an advantage. If you could target these mailings solely to likely Democratic or Republican voters, and thereby increase turnout for your candidate by 8 points, you'd be hailed as America's next political wunderkind. And it's cheap, too. If a bunch of political scientists can afford to do this, it's chump change for a presidential campaign.

So: who do you think is more likely to do this? Democrats or Republicans? And will they try to hide the source of the mail (it is kind of creepy, after all)? Or will they do it out in the open and just take the hit? Or, alternately, do it openly and then brazen it out by claiming that they're really performing a public service and the electorate ought to be grateful?

Anyway, there's plenty of time to get cracking and have these mailings ready to go for November. But only if you get started now. Anyone listening?

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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I was at a precinct where the line of those who waited to vote on election day was was about 100 yards long. We had enough voters, thank you.
But if it would get more folks out to vote for candidates, parties which advance my values.. yes, i'd send out such a letter.
I'm Brad O'Brien and I approved this message

Posted by: Brad on March 8, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Somewhere there's a campaign manager who would have to sell his or her grandmother into black or yellow or brown slavery. Why not just say, "sell their grandmother for that kind of advantage"? You do want to encourage equal-opportunity cut-throat political activism, don't you?

Posted by: greennotGreen on March 8, 2008 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

Allow me to cast my vote against the voting police. Such records shouldn't be made public in the first place; not only should whom or what you voted for and against be private, but whether or not you voted should, as well. It defeats the purpose of a secret ballot. "Well, you live in such and such a neighborhood, 90% of the people who live in this neighborhood voted a certain way, you voted, so...." The whole point of a secret ballot is to allow people to vote secure in the knowledge that they won't be subject to negative repercussions for that vote. These things are violating that notion, plus introducing shame into the equation.

Posted by: MG on March 8, 2008 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

Why not simply do what civilized democracies in Europe do, and hold the elections on Sundays? The more convenient the process becomes, the more people will be able and willing to participate.

I can see why the Republicans wouldn't like that, but I can't understand why the Democrats haven't made an issue of it.

Posted by: Aris on March 8, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

Make it a free online mapping service, like Zillow, where you can look up voting histories... sort by party registration .... absentee preferences... Call it... Politico!

Er... nevermind... that name's taken...

Posted by: anonyous on March 8, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Brad - that's what happens when you live in a D district with an R Secretary of State.

Or vice-versa.

Posted by: anonyous on March 8, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Anything creepy will be done first by Republicans. Democrats have an easier task on this one as super solid Democrat areas can be detected with the naked eye (almost everyone is Black).

I guess that this is creepy enough that it be done by an independent group. Say the association for increased African American voter turnout or else your neighbors will know. President Kevin Drum.

Come on. Your country needs you. If you aren't willing, ask George Soros. He'd love it and they couldn't hate him more than they already do.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on March 8, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

I think KD all but answered the question, Republicans would be more likely to use the tactic. They haven't shied away from trying to suppress turnout of those they think will likely vote against them. Once one candidate/party starts doing this, the others will have no choice but to also do it.

Posted by: bigTom on March 8, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

My mother used this tactic on me. No matter where I lived, she'd always find out if I voted. And boy did I get an earful the one time I hadn't voted. The tactic worked on me. Although it's obviously a little different (and weirder) when it's your mother who's checking up on you.

Posted by: fostert on March 8, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

How about this somewhat less creepy letter:

Dear Voter

In the last election, only X% of your neighbors voted. This is publicly available information and you can see who did vote and who didn't vote here at this website

After the election is over, we'll tell you how your area did in the upcoming election.

Posted by: CSTAR on March 8, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

"The whole point of a secret ballot is to allow people to vote secure in the knowledge that they won't be subject to negative repercussions for that vote. These things are violating that notion, plus introducing shame into the equation."

Of course the campaign contribution lists due to campaign finance reform have already been used by the Bush administration to punish people for thier politics. They were denying invitations to an international telecommunications conference to anyone who had donated to the Kerry campaign a few years ago. I find it unlikely that this was an isolated incident.

Posted by: jefff on March 8, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Privacy isn't what it used to be.

The government can listen in on phone calls, read your email and now some group wants to tell my neighbors whether I vote or not?

It's bad enough that telemarketers keep track of what I order on-line and bombard me with similar products. Are there no limits?

Posted by: jen flowers on March 8, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

golly gee, i wonder which party would send anonymous, threatening mail to people in order to win an election. maybe the one engaging in the vote fraud? no, probably the Democrats: Jonah Goldberg proved they're facists, anyway.

Posted by: chee willikers on March 8, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Off topic - is anyone else getting 502 errors when they try to load blogger-hosted sites?

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on March 8, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Want to boost voter turnout? Offer a $500/year federal tax credit, but only if you voted in most recent Federal election.

Posted by: enplaned on March 8, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

is anyone else getting 502 errors when they try to load blogger-hosted sites?

Since this morning. But not only blogger-hosted sites. matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com and huffingtonpost.com are not coming up, as well as many other sites. I assumed it was a RoadRunner problem.

Posted by: on March 8, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I'm having trouble going to sites.

Posted by: R.L. on March 8, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, what's creepy about it?

Posted by: Swan on March 8, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Are you a current Obama supporter who (for any reason) will not vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election if she gets the Democratic nomination for President?
Then please take a moment to sign this petition:

Posted by: Obama NotClinton on March 8, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK


If banks can come up with secure ways of accessing accounts online and the IRS allows electronic filing, surely we can use the same techniques for voting. How about registering online or with your phone for a voting 'appointment' and a message will be sent to your phone 30 minutes before you need to show up.

Even a damn 'deli counter' ticket would be a vast improvement over the current system.

Maybe fine any precinct who makes you wait more than 20 minutes to vote.

Also, someone needs to do a time study comparing Dem vs Rep precincts.



Posted by: eightnine2718281828mu5 on March 8, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

I actually think this is a good idea in many ways. I know this is probably an unpopular viewpoint, but here's my argument.

Many of the poorest neighborhoods in the country are neglected politically at least in part because they don't vote in large numbers. Politicians, especially in election years, go where the votes are. This is especially true for city council, state legislatures and other often low-turnout elections. I think a community group that sent this out to their neighbors and actually succeeded in raising turnout significantly would be doing their community a service.

These low-turnout positions are pretty important day-to-day, especially since there's been a fair amount of devolution of federal funding through Community Development Block Grants and other means, where cities and states get a lot of money and can do nearly anything they want with it, whether its education, roads, etc. Poor neighborhoods with low turnouts routinely get ignored when this sort of thing gets parceled out by local politicians.

On the other hand any group that did this would take some flack for it, I'm sure. Also if everyone is doing it everywhere, and it doesn't help the relative turnouts in poor vs. middle income/rich neighborhoods, the point is moot.


Posted by: Brennan Griffin on March 8, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Practical Political Consulting is a Democratic firm here in Michigan. In 2006, I was volunteering with Andy Levin's state senate campaign (Sandy Levin's son), among others. I knew about the etov experiment. One of the great things is how cost effective it is: $2-3 per vote, rather than $30-40 per vote for phone banks.

But Tom, the campaign manager, refused to participate, saying he didn't believe the primary data. Monica (Sandy's scheduler "working" for the campaign) actually physically blocked me from coming in the doorway to talk about it. I left the campaign, and they lost -- well within the margin of error of the experiment -- after spending considerable sums for more expensive telephone contacts and advertising.

D.C. folks are far more interested in spending money and padding their resumes than actually winning. That may be due to their payment based as a percentage of expenditures....

Now that it's been published, I hope that everybody uses it. But it's sad that we had a chance to use it first, and blew it.

Posted by: William Allen Simpson on March 8, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

White slavery? I didn't know white liberals were even allowed to say something like that.

Is regular ol' slavery somehow inherently black?

Posted by: Toby Petzold on March 8, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Well of course economics comes into it - the richest 1% or 10% are vastly outnumbered in everything but their wealth. On Levin's campaign thats a toughy-you don't want to scare people, and a lot of depressed (Flint) neighborhoods are filled with paranoid people. Personally I'm more concerned about mass disenfranchisement- If 1 in 100 Americans are in prison and in many places felons cannot vote- How long until theres no one left to vote but the folks wealthy enough to afford good lawyers? BTW- William Simpson(above) email me about Levins campaign if you see this please.

Posted by: John Dolza on March 8, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

How about doing the commonsense thing and move voting day to Sunday. Or alternatively make it a holiday.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman on March 8, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

John Dolza:

Yeah, but this is something that can be done to boost turnout given current conditions, whether or not felonies, prison, and so on get changed in the near term.

Posted by: Brennan Griffin on March 8, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl, I was getting "temporary google error" messages for a while, trying to go to anything on blogspot.

I just tried again, and you blog loaded fine if a bit slow.

Posted by: thersites on March 8, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

civilized democracies in Europe that stuff's for pansies. We're Americans. We should be required to walk barefoot over broken glass to vote. At 5 AM on Sunday.

Posted by: thersites on March 8, 2008 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK


Where do I sign the petition to consign you fucking morons to perdition if
A. Hillary gets the nomination
B. You fucking morons cost us the election
C. St. John takes into another hundred-years war, this one with Iran.

Yes, I know I said "fucking morons" twice. Fucking morons.

Posted by: thersites on March 8, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

While I'm uncomfortable with this particular execution, the concept is worth considering. (I like the CSTAR alternative.) Many people don't get around to voting for one reason or another, but would not readily admit it. I always wear the little "I voted" sticker in the hopes of triggering someone into making an effort.

I'm not a fan of shaming in general, but many people really do act better when there are witnesses and harnessing that in a non-icky way is good. How many people say they will or have voted, but then don't? I'm guessing quite a few. Also, it's my view that the taboo against talking about politics and who we vote for drives down public conversations, which in turn drives down citizenship and participation.

Posted by: filosofickle on March 8, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

The Democratic club in my area is using "frequent voter" lists to sign people up as volunteers. Last Nov, I got a knock on my door and the guy asked for me by name and knew that I was a registered Dem and that I voted in EVERY election and primary. I think that if you're looking for committed campaign volunteers, it's a safe bet to target those people who show up at every election.

Posted by: Rosali on March 8, 2008 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

White slavery? I didn't know white liberals were even allowed to say something like that.

Is regular ol' slavery somehow inherently black?

Don't know if this Toby Petzold is just some irritated idiot Republican, but, yeah, Kevin- maybe you want to say away from stuff like that on your blog? Sounds like a conservative trying to so some race-baiting / stir up what racism may be out there.

Posted by: Swan on March 8, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

It's bad enough that telemarketers keep track of what I order on-line and bombard me with similar products. Are there no limits? -jen flowers

How about the ads in your email changing to subtly match the topics of your emails?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on March 8, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

PLEASE don't everyone get mad at me, but I'm going to take just TWO SECONDS away from explaining why my favored candidate (and not yours) is the only one that won't lead to all of us getting marched into the gas chambers under President McCain. I really apologize in advance for this breach of protocol. Here goes.

Why should voting records be public, anyway? I get that it's useful for micro-targeting campaigns and such, but I'm not completely convinced this sort of thing should, on general principles, be my neighbors' business. Any thoughts?

Posted by: Matt on March 8, 2008 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

The secret Repiggie truth is they DON'T want large voter turnouts - they tend to lose when that happens. So I highly doubt they'd do anything to raise those numbers.

Posted by: Joshua Norton on March 8, 2008 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

This would be even better in combination with a binding 'none of the above (NOTA)' ballot line which, if it garnered at least a plurality (assuming we stick with 'first past the post' voting scheme) would automatically call for new candidates and a new election.

Posted by: jhm on March 8, 2008 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

Matt at 2:43 PM is absolutely right. They shouldn't be public at all.

And I apologize for my part in the distraction but those people piss me off.

Posted by: thersites on March 8, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

What sbout combining the whodidntvote.fake mapping service with the whodonatedtowhatparty.fake site?


(And Kevin, "slavery" doesn't need an adjectival qualifier. Unless you think the 'white' kind is any different from the 'black' or other kind)

Posted by: anonymous on March 8, 2008 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

"Is regular ol' slavery somehow inherently black?"

Don't know if this by a home-schooled wingnut or someone doing an impression of one. "White Slavery" is the term for sexual slavery. It has nothing to do with skin color or picking cotton. Idiot.

I suppose you're the same kind of racist-in-hiding who thinks "niggardly" is some kind of racial reference because you don't have a clue about what is and isn't real racism.

Posted by: Joshua Norton on March 8, 2008 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

How in the hell did they get past the testing on human subjects restrictions on this?

This is highly unethical behavior that clearly social scientists are not supposed to engage in.

Posted by: Nazgul35 on March 8, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Hello All,

In Australia, everyone is required to vote at elections. If they don't, they get a $50 (AUD) fine. Actually, I believe they are not required to actually vote, but to show up at the polling place. But, while you are there, you might as well vote. Also, I recall that election days took place on a Saturday, which made it easier for most people.

Yes, I am aware that requiring everyone to go to polling places is probably unconstitutional in the US. But EVERYONE I spoke with in Australia (this includes people from both major parties and many non-political types) is for their system of required voting. And just about everyone there criticized the low voter turnout in the USA.

Just a thought.

Posted by: adlsad on March 8, 2008 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK


In my neck of the woods, we don't just have presidential/congressional elections every two years. We have all sorts of other minor elections and voting, such that I get election notices seemingly every few months. I'm wondering if you and your fellow aussies would feel the same way about the $50 fine if it was being levied every time they had a town council/school board/local bond issue/local primary election.

I'm agnostic on the question of whether or not voting records should be public. I do think any candidate/party sending out these sorts of busybody letters would get their heads handed to them in the next election. My guess is the GOP might do it, but in such a way as to make it look like the Dems were sending out the letters.

Posted by: jimBOB on March 8, 2008 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Back in the day when I was young and excited about politics and in the employ of an infamous city machine, we used to get assigned the task of going around to all those who hadn't voted in the previous election, asking if they had any city service needs that weren't being met, and promise to send someone to look into the problem. The local guy would then show up, commiserate over the problem and then point out -- hey, now that I think about it, we didn't see you at the polls last time.

Next election we'd see the same result as these guys. Mobilizing shame is a pretty good strategy.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on March 8, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Why do we want more voters who don't know anything, more voters who make their minds up at the last minute, and more voters who base their vote on the most capricious, trivial reasons?

Moving election day to a Sunday is a fine idea. So is secure internet voting. But please, let's not goad apathetic people into voting.

Posted by: Hal on March 8, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK


For the record, I was just posting to mention that Australia does have compulsory elections, not to give my opinion on the subject. Personally, I am sympathetic to the idea, but it might be problematic here. I was mentioning Australia's system mainly to show an alternative to what we have in the USA, and also as an alternative to the "shaming" idea that is the point of Kevin's post. I have never actually voted in Australia (I am not a citizen, I live in Californiam, but I lived in Oz for 4 years), but I do know they have compulsory voting. Also, I strongly believe that they vote in school boards, mayoral elections, and other "minor things" when they vote in the general elections. Also, I vaguely remember that they vote once or twice a year. However, I don't think they have anything like "initiatives" that we have in California.

Now, to answer your question, the answer is probably yes (for the record, I am speculating what most of my friends in Australia would think about the issue), that compulsory voting should apply to all elections. They have had it that way for 70 years and there has never been any significant effort to change it, so it is a part of the culture. Currently, about 95% of Aussies vote in every election. Also, if you have a good excuse (such as injury, illness, religious reasons, being away, etc.), you are not required to vote.

Posted by: adlsad on March 8, 2008 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Please excuse the grammatical and spelling errors in my last post.

Posted by: adlsad on March 8, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone who thinks that any presidential campaign isn't armed already with voting records, average household income, where your children go to school, what kind of car you drive and what brand of toilet paper you regularly buy is kidding themselves.


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Posted by: arteclectic on March 8, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

sure, voting records should remain secret. they're used by election officials to determine who should be purged from the rolls and who should be kept. not vote in so many elections and you're going to get dumped. i'd trust a katherine harris-type election official to make such calls without any oversight, without the possibility of any public scrutiny, especially in a tight election year. sure i would.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on March 8, 2008 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

So whats the purpose of the curtains, etc, around voting booths?

Posted by: Jet on March 8, 2008 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Why does Robert Waldmann dislike Colin Powell and Condi Rice?

Posted by: Jet on March 8, 2008 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

Jet - you get curtains?

Posted by: anonyous on March 8, 2008 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

I see no reason whether or not one votes shouldn't be public. For whom one votes is another matter.
As for "shaming" people; well, it IS sort of "shameful" that so many people, with no valid reason not to vote, don't.

Posted by: Doug on March 8, 2008 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

If a mailer like this can be traced to a particular party, I could see it backfiring. Imagine that you're a relatively apolitical person who has missed some votes in the past, and you get this letter in the mail saying that everyone in the neighborhood has now been informed that you've been missing votes. You're probably a little embarrassed but also a little annoyed at the organization doing the mailing, so you might vote for the other party out of spite, given that you don't otherwise have strong political beliefs.

Posted by: Foo Bar on March 8, 2008 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

This IS creepy, and it is despicable, and it is also wrong--in the sense of "incorrect." Voting records may be public, but "not voting records" are not. Do people have the right to target you and publicize you and harass you and discuss your marriage or non-marriage, your job or non-job, your clothes, your lawn, etc., etc., all blared on a harassing Web site? I don't think so. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen.

This just shows that anyone who wants a shred of privacy these days should NOT register to vote, should NOT get any mailings addressed to them by their birth name, if it's unique, and SHOULD take all necessary steps to be known by the Social Security Administration as simply John or Jane Doe, John or Jane Smith, etc. This DOES NOT include going to court for a "legal" name change--all the other steps you can go to are enough to legally change your name, and a court record is just one more searchable piece of crap out there that people can look up and discuss.


Posted by: Anon on March 8, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly, Anon. I will register to vote if and only if we get the Fourth Amendment back.

Posted by: Anon2 on March 8, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

Jet - you get curtains?
Posted by: anonyous

Naw, I just go outback.

Posted by: Jet on March 8, 2008 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

Shaming people over not voting just smacks of the "in loco parentis" mentality, the "I know better than you" mentality. It's condescending and clear evidence of self righteousness. Some people don't vote because they don't want jury duty. I disagree and vote at every opportunity but no one should be forced to vote and no one should be shamed for having different values/priorities than I do.

Posted by: jen flowers on March 8, 2008 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

Adisad, JimBob et al

In Australia voting is compulsory, although as adisad says, it is actually attendance at the polling booth that is the compulsory bit. ONce you've said who you are and where you live, your name is crossed off the register and you are handed your ballots. From that point on, you can do whatever you want with the ballot. About 1 or 2 percent of voters put in blank or otherwise invalid ballots (often with offensive comments etc).

BTW, we use paper ballots, optional preferential voting (numbering all candidates in preferential order) and our ballots are cardboard boxes. Even the voting booth is cardboard.

Polling booths are peopled by volunteers, counting is done by the electoral commission volunteer reps, with "scrutineers" from all candidates able to challenge votes as they are being counted. The electoral commission compiles all votes from all polling booths and pubishes them at a state-based or national tally room.

And our government elections - council (equivalent to USAan City/county elections), State and federal are ALL conducted on a Saaturday, managed by the electoral commission, and (I know you won't believe this) use the same process and rules throughout the nation.

In remote areas, travelling booths operate over a couple of weeks, so those votes may not be on Saturdays. You can pre-lodge a vote, send it via post or vote at another booth away from your electorate if needed.

Council elections are generally held annually, state elections every 4 years and federal elections every 3 years. But State and federal governments are based on Parliamentary majority, so the timing is not fixed. We basically vote at least once every year.

As for school boards etc, our education and medical systems are state-based, controlled through a state based education or health department. These outline the curriculum, registration, standards etc. Each school has a school board that may deal with maintenance and facilities, some hiring and firing, and managing budgets, but do not have anything to do with curriculum etc. (Hospital boards are generally appointed). Voting for these boards is entirely voluntary and usually postal. It's often only a few active staff or parents who get themselves on the boards, and only a few parents who actually vote. But we don't have the ramifications of local activists trying to control curriculum like you do in the US.

Compulsory voting means that parties and candidates MUST have policies aimed at ALL Australians. Even most prisoners have the vote, the homeless, the druggies, everyone from 18 years or more (so long as they are a citizen). Even Collingwood supporters, or rugby followers.

The electoral commission handles the get out to vote part, the parties basically concentrate on policies. Our elections are a hell of a lot cheaper than yours, and with at least equal effect and far, far greater participation. Which means that any government elected knows it has legitimacy from ALL Australians, and still has to ensure that its policies are attractive to at least half of the - total - voting population.

Posted by: FibenB of Garth on March 8, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Shaming is often a strong motivator. However, it may shame people into the arms of the opposite political party than the one that sent the shaming letter in the first place!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on March 8, 2008 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

Gyad, no, no elections on a Saturday, thank you. First of all, too many people go off on holiday every weekend. Second, Saturday is a holy day for several different religions, in case you haven't noticed.

Better idea--hold elections on a Tuesday and make it a national holiday. Not enough time for people to take trips to the Bahamas, and you get a higher turnout too.

Posted by: Alyssa Burgin on March 8, 2008 at 11:02 PM | PERMALINK

Compulsory voting means that parties and candidates MUST have policies aimed at ALL Australians.

What? You mean you don't have political parties that make policy exclusively for corporations and the wealthy? Amazing concept.

Seriously, we here in America traded our privacy for convenience a long time ago. We allow our grocery stores to collect oodles of information on our buying habits that they sell off to unregulated data aggregators -- all for a few pennies off a can of Tuna (with Club card!.) We sign up for credit accounts that allow retailers to collect and track our buying habits. We keep voting for spineless politicians that roll over on flagrant violations of our civil rights in the name of "security."

We are for sale to anyone with enough money to buy us.

Posted by: arteclectic on March 8, 2008 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, we use paper ballots, optional preferential voting (numbering all candidates in preferential order) -FibenB of Garth

Very interesting. But I've got a question about the preferential voting. How is it that it can be "optional" and still work with others NOT voting that way? Is it because only the top preference actually gets counted as a true vote and the rest is just statistical info for the government or is it useful in runoff elections?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on March 8, 2008 at 11:09 PM | PERMALINK

FibenB of Garth,

Thank you for the information. I was living in Sydney, so voting at your local polling place was pretty easy. But I always wondered how the rural people in Queensland and NSW voted because it would be a loooooong way to the polling place.

Posted by: adlsad on March 8, 2008 at 11:53 PM | PERMALINK

arteclectic: What? You mean you don't have political parties that make policy exclusively for corporations and the wealthy? Amazing concept.

Bit sloppy in my phrasing. We do have parties aimed at different groups; Labor (union, social democrats), Liberals (business/big-end of town, conservative in everyone else's terms), Nationals (regional/rural/mining interests), Greens, etc. B

But each party, to obtain government, either on its own right or through coalition, must have policies that at least 50% of the voting public can agree with. Some of it very tightly targeted to uncommitted "swing" voters, often in specific electorates. But with compulsory voting and universal franchise, no party can really afford to piss off or totally ignore whole swathes of the population. When they have, they've usually found themselves quickly dropped from power. Lots of different groups can end up as a majority, especially with preferential voting.

There've been some classic falls from grace, the best being the fall in 1999 of the Kennett govt in Victoria which came completely out of the blue. Kennett had pissed of the rural/regional voters who traditionally voted for his coalition partner, the Nationals. However, Labor had put a lot of effort into working in the regions, its leader was from the bush, and the votes went to Labor instead. Result, a surprise new Labor government.

Doc at the Radar station: How is it that it can be "optional" and still work with others NOT voting that way?

In the House of Reps, votes are preferential. If there are 5 candidates you number them in order of 1 (first preference) down to 5 (most despised). All candidates must have a valid, unique number listed, otherwise the vote is rejected. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, they are elected. Otherwise the candidate with the least votes has their votes reallocated to all other candidates according to each voter's second preference (2). And so on until one candidate passes the 50% mark. See this AEC page for an explanation.
Trust me, it works. And many people vote tactically, by say giving the Greens the first preference and Labor the second, knowing the Greens are not likely to win the electorate, to let Labor know they need to be more environmentally or socially conscious. In your voting, your vote dies immediately, especially in first past the post.
In the Senate, and some State and council elections, the vote can be optionally preferential. For example, if you want to vote for the Labor ticket, you tick the Labor box as 1, and leave everyone else's blank. In some of the State or council elections, if you only want to vote for one person and not have your votes flow on to others, you mark only that candidate as 1. Effectively the same as in the US or British system. This means that some votes are allocated to other candidates (where full preferences were marked) while others do not (where no further preferences were indicated).

All further preferences are allocated according to the preferences that the Labor party has already lodged and been published before you vote. At the same time, some of us can masochistically number all 100-or-so senate candidates individually, if we don't agree with how the party wants to allocate it preferences.

I hope that makes sense. It’s not as complex as you may think, it’s been in use since the 1920s and offers us, the voters, a bit more say, and the occasional surprise result. And keeps the pollies on their toes, which is no bad thing.

Posted by: FibenB of Garth on March 9, 2008 at 1:22 AM | PERMALINK

Surprised no one seems to care about the ethical aspect of this...

To flesh it out, Yale university subscribes to the Belmont Report, which governs testing on human subjects.

A very big no-no is to conduct a test without implied consent.

respect for persons demands that subjects enter into the research voluntarily and with adequate information. In some situations, however, application of the principle is not obvious. The involvement of prisoners as subjects of research provides an instructive example. On the one hand, it would seem that the principle of respect for persons requires that prisoners not be deprived of the opportunity to volunteer for research. On the other hand, under prison conditions they may be subtly coerced or unduly influenced to engage in research activities for which they would not otherwise volunteer. Respect for persons would then dictate that prisoners be protected. Whether to allow prisoners to "volunteer" or to "protect" them presents a dilemma. Respecting persons, in most hard cases, is often a matter of balancing competing claims urged by the principle of respect itself.

Also the do no harm principle:

Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being. Such treatment falls under the principle of beneficence. The term "beneficence" is often understood to cover acts of kindness or charity that go beyond strict obligation. In this document, beneficence is understood in a stronger sense, as an obligation. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: (1) do not harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.

How in the hell did Yale let this one slip by them?

It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Posted by: Nazgul35 on March 9, 2008 at 1:44 AM | PERMALINK

And you're against wire-tapping?

Posted by: Hope Muntz on March 9, 2008 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Horrible idea! I was the recipient of this tactic in Michigan & believe me, I was highly offended!!! I've voted more times that I can even remember with the exception of a primary once because I was sick. I personally don't want people voting that are not educated on the issues, which is what this would produce.

Posted by: Marie Wilson on March 9, 2008 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Why should it be up to a candidate to do it? Isn't this what 527s are for?

Posted by: aretino on March 9, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Minority folks often complain they don't have enough pull (in other than the districts they have drawn up to their advantage, no problem just reminding) and they often have good reason (not the least, is deliberate voter suppression and fraud usually now by GOP, also the practice of denying voting to ex-felons, the latter likely motivated in similar vein.) Well, if they'd pull together and have great (80+% turnout) think how much influence that would have.

Posted by: Neil B. on March 9, 2008 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

Nazgul35, the Belmont Report can't "govern" human testing the way laws literally do, it is a guideline taken as authoritative by the authorities, so to speak. Not like the literal treaties the US has signed on torture and conduct of war, for example ...

Posted by: N. B. on March 9, 2008 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

It's not just about turning out voters, it's about turning out YOUR voters. You still have to do all the work of finding out if that voter is going to vote for you, and that is not "cheap".

Any attention to the voter increases turnout. I've done GOTV and the most effective is the election day knock and drag. Show up at someone's house and foolow up that day on whether or not they've voted, and you increase turnout about 10%.

Posted by: donna on March 9, 2008 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Aretino, you beat me to it.

This has got 527 written all over it.

Posted by: Mary Contrary on March 9, 2008 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

NB, I understand it isn't a "treaty," but it is the governing moral and ethical stance of social scientists.

So I ask again, why did Yale allow this study to go forward given the many different violations of said moral and ethical standards?

Posted by: Nazgul35 on March 9, 2008 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

FibenB, I've always sort of liked the Australian system, but it really doesn't have to be as complicated as asking people to sort a list of five choices. I think you can get 99.9% of the tactical and proportional fairness benefit by simply giving people the option of first choice and second choice. First is for who you really want to vote for. Second is for who you would settle for winning. In one-choice FPTP voting, people reluctantly choose what would be their second choice, and Big Two politicians claim that third party X is unpopular because "no one votes for them". That would change big time with second-preference voting, which is just a really cut-down and simplified form of Australian ballot.

Posted by: derek on March 10, 2008 at 7:12 AM | PERMALINK

Continuing the transparent-society creepiness theme of this post, there's also a public feedback benefit to two-preference voting compared to five-preference voting, which is that you can publish a complete account of the results of the former with just a two-dimensional table. The latter would take a five-dimensional table to describe fully.

Posted by: derek on March 10, 2008 at 7:19 AM | PERMALINK

Nope don't like this one bit.

There is a difference between publicly-available and publicly broadcast, and this leaps right past that line.

IF I want to I can find out what man of neighbors make for a livingall compensation from the University of Michigan is available at the library.

Does that mean I should send notes to everyone on my street and reveal that data? And not expect a backlash?

Even if payoff in votes is sure to exceed backlash, I don't like it. In my opinion a secret ballot's secrecy should include more than just the vote.

Posted by: Mr Furious on March 10, 2008 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

Holy typo, BAtman...

If I want to I can find out what MANY of MY neighbors make for a living, all compensation from the University of Michigan is available at the library...

Posted by: Mr Furious on March 10, 2008 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

Why should the unwashed masses of airheads be encouraged to vote when they have no positions other than total selfishness?

If we really wanted this sort of a coercive society, ze Australians have vays of bring ze people to vote.

"Raymond E. Wolfinger's Op-Ed article (Nov. 4), proposing a way to end voting reregistration when a person moves, reminded me that Australians are required to vote. In fact, if they do not, they are fined $20 Australian ($12 U.S.)."

Posted by: Luther on March 10, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK


I am told that there are several organizations that use the social pressure methodology described in this study to do fundraising drives, including the Jewish Federation. Doing this with fundraising strikes me as a lot more icky than doing it with voting, but that's just my own opinion.

Posted by: astrodem on March 10, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Derek: In some Aus states, voluntary preferential voting works exactly as you says - if you only want to mark 1st and 2nd preference, that's all you have to do.

But for federal etc elections in my pretty marginal electorate, there've been up to 12 or so names on the ballot - still not a great hassle to list them all. And most parties put out "How to Vote" cards that about 80% of voters follow, anyway. It's only masochists or wonks who feel they must make their own numbering decisions.

Lucifer: Why shouldn't the unwashed masses of airheads have a say in their government? Voting is a right and it's a responsibility too. Isn't everyone, at least in theory, equal under the law? So they should be equally responsible for voting for the representatives who make those laws. What's more democratic- an election where 90% or more of the eligible population casts their vote or one in which barely 50% does? Are there any fewer shit votes cast in the US than there are in Australia? I doubt it.

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