Voter competence under compulsory voting: I posted what follows over at Crooked Timber, but it seems appropriate here, too. Dan Ortiz has an article called "The Paradox of Mass Democracy," printed in recent book called Rethinking the Vote (OUP) that raises some interesting questions about the relation between compusory voting and voter competence. Ortiz argues that democracies are supposed to meet three conditions: (i) near universal suffrage, (ii) equality among those granted voting rights, and (iii) some degree of thoughtfulness among voters. The problem is that we can't have it all: the more we broaden political participation among equals, the less likely it is that individuals will deliberate about their political choices. The argument is that mass participation, combined with voter equality, drives down voter competence. The main reason for this effect is that individual votes matter less when more people vote. As partipation expands, rational voters therefore have less reason to educate themselves about their political choices.

Ortiz argues that the best way to deal with this trend is to neutralize the effects of voter incompetence through various structural reforms. To take a simple example, Jon Krosnick and some of his associates have shown that candidates listed first on a ballot receive a "name order bonus." Even if this effect is minimal, say under 3%, it might still be sufficient to decide some elections. An easy solution is to rotate the names of candidates in order to cancel out the "noise" generated by unthoughtful voters. (States like Montana and Ohio already do this.) The problem with this solution, as Ortiz is aware, is that it leaves the underlying problem untouched. Rotating ballots doesn't change the fact that lots of voters are still incompetent. Since Ortiz is skeptical about attempting to change voter behavior, he thinks that "shallow" strategies are the best--indeed, the only--way to overcome the bad effects of the democratic paradox he identifies.

But are there other solutions to the problem of voter competence that are not deeply coercive? To come back to Australia, does providing (positive or negative) incentives for voting improve voter competence? For example, how does Australia, which has compulsory voting, compare in voter competence with countries that lack incentives for voting? Does the "name order" effect hold at similar levels? (Or does Australia use rotational ballots to cancel this effect?) If increasing voter turnout drives down voter competence, other things being equal, one would expect a significant drop in voter competence.

How would paying people to vote (say, with some sort of tax credit or voucher) effect voter competence? Would people learn more about candidates--either because they feel obligated by law, or because candidates will invest more in the process of informing voters knowing that everyone must participate? Consider also the effect of incentives on two classes of voters--those who already vote, and those who would vote only under an incentive regime. First, would there be crowding out effects for people who would have voted without legal or financial incentives? In other words, would a monetary incentive for voting displace other possible motives--including those based on some sense of civic duty? And, second, how would voting incentives effect competency levels for the class of people who would not otherwise vote?

I'm not sure what to think of the "mass paradoxes" argument, in part because there seem to be lots of open questions about how voter competence is related to various ways of structuring voter participation. "Shallow" strategies may be a good way to neutralize unthoughtful voters, but perhaps these solutions can be supplemented with incentives that promote greater political deliberation.