Voters' Preferences are Not One-Dimensional

by Don Boudreaux on July 29, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Wall Street Journal:

John Fund’s review of Alvin Stephen Felzenberg’s “The Leaders We Deserved” is superb (July 29).  But it’s not quite correct to say that “In November, we will definitively rank our two presidential candidates.”  This chestnut of conventional wisdom mistakenly presumes that each voter’s order of preference – for example, “I prefer Obama over McCain” – is the only relevant part of each voter’s preferences.  In fact, however, each voter also has intensities of preference – for example, “I prefer Obama enormously over McCain.”

In November, each voter will be able to express his or her preference order, but not his or her preference intensity.  This fact is important.  Suppose John McCain wins with 51 percent of the vote.  Would he truly be the most-preferred candidate if the great majority of persons who vote for him prefer him over Barack Obama only very slightly, while the great majority of persons who vote for Obama fiercely and deeply loathe the prospect of a McCain presidency?

Because the intensity with which each of us prefers one thing to another is as much a part of our preferences as is the ordering of those preferences, casting ballots in elections does less than we typically suppose to reveal the inherently elusive ‘will of the people.’

Of course, the reality is a bit richer than can be expressed in a single letter-to-the-editor.  Because in the U.S. citizens are not obliged to vote, it’s reasonable to suppose that the greater any citizen’s intensity of preference for (or against) a candidate, the more likely that citizen is to vote.  Likewise, less-intense preferences are less likely than are more-intense preferences to inspire a citizen to vote.  So our freedom to vote or not to vote provides some mechanism for registering the intensity of voters’ preferences.  This fact, in turn, is an argument against mandatory voting, or even against efforts to instill in citizens a sense that voting is a civic duty.  Mandatory voting, or a widespread sense of civic obligation to vote, takes away from the voting process whatever ability it has to register voters’ preference intensities.

Question: what would the inclusion of “None of the Above” on each ballot do to voting’s ability to register voters’ intensity of preference?

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Mike July 29, 2008 at 7:21 am

This appears to be yet another attempt to excuse your non-voting behavior. If you don't want to vote, don't vote, but please stop trying to justify it to everyone else. No one really cares if you vote or not. This argument about the supposed intensity of voters' feelings about an individual candidate is an argument desperately seeking relevance. You are an informed, educated, erudite teacher and writer. But, when you get on this particular soapbox you come across as nothing more than a crank.

Jeff July 29, 2008 at 8:20 am

A "None of the Above" category in the voting booth would allow citizen voters to express their dislike with not only the candidates offered, but with the process itself.

The two party lock on elections is slowly killing us. Political parties have stolen representative government from the people and replaced it with party government.

Adam July 29, 2008 at 8:20 am

Mike, no one needs an excuse not to vote. Frankly, the only reason I do it is to avoid being sneered at and dismissed whenever I try and debate anything political with someone.

For some baffling reason, a huge number of people are firmly convinced that if and only if you wait in line to mark a piece of paper once every few years, you're fully qualified to engage in any discussion of issues. Otherwise, you're beneath pond scum. Never mind whether you know a damn thing about what you're talking about, whether you read the news, whether you read books, whether you ever use the gray mass between your ears. Either vote or shut up. Brilliant logic.

Hammer July 29, 2008 at 8:38 am

I agree with Adam, and would add that most of those who don't care enough to vote probably do not care about politics in general, and as a result do not bother to really learn about candidates and issues. It makes perfect sense to allow those people to demur and allow those with more interest in the subject to make the decision for them.
Now, a "None of the Above" option would serve if someone really does not like either of the two large party candidates, but are interested in the process. They could either vote for a 3rd party candidate that they like, write in one not on the ballot, or just select "None". One of the more trouble aspects of American voting behavior are people who don't want to "throw their vote away" and either then don't bother voting, or vote for someone they do not really like. It would seem that over the long run it is better if the major parties see just what sort of voting percentage 3rd parties get such that they might start to more towards those positions, instead of merely merging closer and closer to each other.

piperTom July 29, 2008 at 8:58 am

In order for the discussion of None Of The Above to be useful, we need an answer to the question: what if NOTA wins?

My proposal is that (a) a new election must be scheduled forthwith and (b) all of the people who lost to NOTA are disqualified from ANY public office for the term of the office that was being sought. Thus, a vote for NOTA will mean something.

James Hanley July 29, 2008 at 9:25 am

Boudreaux's argument is correct, but he actually ignores the stronger rebuttal of the reporter's claim that "we will definitively rank the candidates" in November, which is the variable outcome available with different voting methods.

Only Florida's use of the single non-transferable vote with plurality winner allowed George W. Bush to win in 2000. Any other voting system would have handed the election to Gore. That's not necessarily an argument against our plurality system, just a statement that a different system would result in a different "definitive" ordering.

Of course some of those alternative systems do incorporate the intensity of preferenes Boudreaux mentioned, particularly the Borda count.

And, Mike, voting is but one of many ways to participate in politics. Boudreux participates quite regularly in American politics by exercising his first amendment write to send letters to the editor. Quite plausibly he has more influence that way than he does by voting. So please relax–this political science prof says voting is not the end-all, be-all of good citizenship.

Per Kurowski July 29, 2008 at 10:24 am

Don Boudreaux
Question: what would the inclusion of "None of the Above" on each ballot do to voting's ability to register voters' intensity of preference?

Answer: Provide some citizens with the perfect moral excuse of sitting back home doing nothing as Monday morning political quarterbacks… so easy, so comfortable… and so tenured?

Blackadder July 29, 2008 at 10:51 am

My guess is that while including 'none of the above' as an option would reduce the total number of votes cast for each candidate, it wouldn't increase voter turn out much. Most people who don't vote don't do so out of principle, but because they have better things to do.

Unit July 29, 2008 at 11:34 am

The problem with blank ballots is that they are never tallied together with the other votes. Come November you won't be able to know the percentage of blank ballots even if you're an adept Google searcher.

Another way to record the intensity of preferences would be to give the option to multiply one's vote by 10 or 100 at say 100 USD or 1000 USD respectively.

roystgnr July 29, 2008 at 11:36 am

The trouble with most ideas for quantifying the intensity of voter preference (I'm thinking of Range Voting in particular) is that when you look at the game theory you see that voters usually have incentive to "cheat" and exaggerate their preferences. If I slightly prefer Obama to McCain, but my 110% preference affects the election a hundred times less than the vote of someone who thinks McCain is ten times the man Obama is, then I am more likely to get what I want by claiming to have just as intense a vote as those guys on the other side.

But maybe there are ways around that. Don points out that the effort of voting filters out low-intensity preferences. I recently voted in Texas' "two-step" primary/caucus which gives more weight to voters with strong enough preferences to spend more time at it.

Perhaps these ideas could be made more granular? Cast a ballot remotely for one vote. Come to the polling place for two. Additionally write and publish the rationale behind your vote for three. Brave the "Ring of Fire" for four. And so on.

Walter July 29, 2008 at 11:54 am

I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff. And piperTom's proposal would be a splendid, pro-active way for even the most disgruntled citizen to cast a vote that means something: a real chance to throw the bums out and a return to real representative government!

Per Kurowski July 29, 2008 at 2:34 pm

a real chance to throw the bums out and a return to real representative government!
Posted by: Walter | Jul 29, 2008 11:54:27 AM

No need to say more, the circularity of this argument is perplexing. Perpetuum mobile!

anomdebus July 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm

I agree that more information from voters would be useful. I would prefer voting in a different way that single non-transferable, my favorite being Borda. In that scheme, it is possible to vote someone in office while getting a minority of first choice votes. I have no problem with that, but others find the non-intuitiveness to be fundamentally incorrect (see Arrow's Theorem)

Crusader July 29, 2008 at 5:05 pm

So who's going to deal with $600 billion deficits? Obama? McCain? Don't make me laugh. Oh and California's budget deficit is sky high too and nobody's willing to do anything there either. TSHTF!

George July 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

I would have liked to have been able to cast weighted first choice, second choice, and third choice votes early in the presidential primary process. Seems to me giving 1/2 of my vote to my first choice, 1/3 of my vote to my second choice, and 1/6 of my vote to my third choice would narrow down the field in a more reasonable way than the current process. Instead, all I got to do with my vote here in Texas was to cross party lines and help change the news coverage on March 4th, greatly slowing Obama's momentum.

To help create more competition for my vote in congressional races, I'd like to see the equivalent to a huge signing bonus where the challenger wins a one-time prize of a couple million dollars if they knock off an incumbent. The prize money would be cheap compared to the cost of keeping incumbent congresscritters, fully experienced in manipulating the levers of power, in office.

vidyohs July 29, 2008 at 9:15 pm

Ahh James Hanley,

A political sceince prof, eh? Well sir, you've confused me by your assertion that someone has a "first amendment write". Just where would one find the granting or admission of that write, and how does one go about getting it? :-)

I just did a depo that lasted for four hours and the deponent repeated, to every question, "On the advice of my attorney, I exercise my 5th amendment privilege to remain silent and not answer the question……etc."

After the deposition I asked the deponent's attorney why the deviation in the wording and she had zero clue.

Oh lordy lordy, we have writes and privileges, but no rights?

Whahab de wurl be com'en too?

Voting between two non-entities is a senseless exercise, the None of the Above group has my support. If NOTA wins, scrap the election and start over, as some one said above, with totally new candidates. It may be costly, but less costly than having an idiot in the presidency.

James Hanley July 29, 2008 at 9:24 pm

Oh, lord, how could I have done that? May I plead desperately trying to get my kids out of the house to swim practice?

No, I fully deserve Vidyoh's bitch-slapping of my error.

vidyohs July 29, 2008 at 9:45 pm


Don't be too hard on yourself, it happens to all of us now and again. Can't tell you the number of gulps I have had to emit when I read my post that was done gone and posted. I was just poking light hearted fun.

Peace be to you.

brotio July 29, 2008 at 10:35 pm

"The two party lock on elections is slowly killing us. Political parties have stolen representative government from the people and replaced it with party government." – Jeff

Jeff, the two-party system has been with us from practically the beginning, and will be with us as long as the Constitution remains relatively unchanged regarding such matters. Ours is not a parliamentary system. Here, the coalitions are formed before the elections – in most other Representative Republics, those coalitions are formed after the election.

The extreme electoral mood swings that result in Britain (and other nations) nationalizing industries under one Prime Minister, then selling them off under another, then re-nationalizing some of them under the next PM are prevalent in the United States, too, but our system does a better job of keeping those extremes in check, and it was even better in this regard before the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified.

Vidyohs wrote an excellent article on ways to drastically improve representation in our government on a different thread of this blog.

BlacquesJacquesShellacques July 31, 2008 at 7:55 pm

I like George's idea.

Give everybody 100 votes and let them 'spend' their votes where they want. The hardcore Dems could give all 100 to the Democrat on the ticket, likewise for Repubs.

Normal people could split their votes 60-40, 70-30 or whatever. Or even 20-30 and neither of the idiots gets any more.

Then we could really look at intensity. Suppose a candidate won with 5000 voters giving him 200,000 votes, with the loser getting 150,000. We would know that of the 500,000 available votes only 350,000 got spent, showing some considerable disdain for both candidates.

I also think voting procedures should be difficult and complex with the ballots spoiled by the incompetent easily rejected. But that's a whole nuther topic.

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