PR-STV and voter turnout in theory

Writing for the Scholars’ Strategy Network, David Blatt argues that the single transferable vote form of proportional representation would raise down-ticket voter turnout in GOP-dominated Oklahoma. To the extent that single-party domination affects turnout, of course, STV would do the same in states where Democrats dominate state and local elections.

This post will get to the value of legislative minority status, which must exist, but first the quotation:

Multi-Member Districts. In single-member plurality systems, legislative representation tends to be restricted to candidates and parties that appeal to a broad section of the population, while excluding or limiting representation for viewpoints held by significant segments of voters short of a majority. An alternative system combines multi-member districts with a single-transferable vote. Known as “choice voting,” this system increases the odds of minority parties or independent and third-party candidates winning at least some seats. With more competitive elections and viable candidates, more Oklahoma citizens would probably want to vote.

It’s worth fleshing out the pathways by which STV may raise voter turnout.

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons a person may vote. The first is on his own initiative. The second is because a party or interest group mobilizes him to do so.

In either case, we can think of some cost associated with the act of voting. The individual voter only has 16 waking hours on Election Day, and the group (party or interest) only has so many resources to dedicate to voter mobilization. Call each “goods.”

Goods spent on voting need to be used efficiently because voting presents opportunity costs. Let’s focus on the interest group because voters, unless they derive pleasure from the act itself, have well-known reasons to not vote. Groups use their resources efficiently when they allocate goods to races that they can help favored candidates to win. Let’s assume that the expenditure of group resources does cause people to vote.

STV affects group efficiency calculations insofar as it makes it easier, relative to whatever other rule is in place, to win a seat. That ease varies directly with the size of a district, where size (or magnitude) is the number of officials elected in it. In Oklahoma, which is the subject of the piece, the typical rule in place mandates single-seat districts in which the candidate with most votes wins (single-member plurality, or SMP). So, if in a given district, there is one candidate we reliably expect to get the most votes, it is inefficient for the group to use resources there. We typically expect a candidate to get the most votes because he has the backing of a party whose job is to restrict the number of candidates in a way that maximizes the chances of winning. This is why, on balance, and from the perspective of winning seats, SMP makes it wasteful to mobilize voters while STV does not.

So far, so good. All this has been review for the midterm.

But why bother winning seats where there is little chance of them adding up to a majority (e.g., in Oklahoma, the subject of the piece)? The question is whether being in the minority confers any benefit. If it does not, there is no point in a group using its resources. No, not even in the Land of Proportionalia, high on Candy Mountain, amidst clouds of cherry cola vapor, where one percent of votes elegantly renders one percent of seats.

“But wait,” you say. All over the place, we see groups using resources inefficiently, struggling to be in the legislative minority. Are they naive? Have political scientists been drinking Drano for the past 100 years?

No, and no, and the conventional wisdom – this is probably a bastardized recounting of otherwise Drano-free political science – is wrong. Being in the minority matters because:

(1) The minority gets to scream and yell about things the majority refuses to do, which is useful if journalists are watching.

(2) The minority gets close to the action. It gets to watch the sausage being made. When the majority picks the meat up off the cannery floor, covered in dirt and sawdust, only to be fed back into the mechanical grinder, the minority may see that. And it can scream and yell.

(3) If your legislature has a committee system, which it probably does, the minority can scream and yell in committee, and it can scream and yell about the dirt and sawdust on the floor of the committee room.

(4) If the majority exists because its members have agreed to ignore that on which they disagree, the minority can propose new majorities based on those issues.

(5) Maybe the members of the majority don’t even know that they disagree on some issue (not likely). In which case, see 4 above.

(6) And the minority can demand kickbacks in return for not doing any of 1-5. This, of course, is for better or worse. My own work reveals some mum minorities doing very well for themselves in city government patronage (usually but not always until the prospect of STV appears).

So, yes, being in the minority matters. STV makes it easier (than what we have now) to win minorities. On average, then, STV should indeed increase voter turnout.

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