Pew Charitable Trusts releases first EPI, Elections Performance Index, based on Prof. Heather Gerken’s book The Democracy Index

The flaws in the American election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group ranked all 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom.

A main goal of the exercise, which grew out of Professor’s Gerken’s 2009 book, “The Democracy Index,” was to shame poor performers into doing better, she said.

“Peer pressure produces horrible things like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and tongue rings,” Professor Gerken said. “But it also produces professional peer pressure.”

via U.S. Voting Flaws Are Widespread, Study Shows –


Back in 2009, we published The Democracy Index by Heather Gerken. The book proposed a ranking system for U.S. elections that would look at everything from the average time a voter has to wait in line, to whether the polling place is adequately staffed, to how accurately votes are counted. The idea was to identify states with practices that “work” and motivate states appearing toward the bottom of the list to improve their practices. The ranking system would be publicly available, similar to U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings, and empower rank and file voters to identify problems and demand their officials look into election practices.

Thanks to Pew, we now have an interactive site where we can explore just how well different states fared during the 2008 and 2010 elections and we can definitively say that while Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota have a lot to celebrate, Mississippi, Alabama, and the District of Columbia should probably re-evaluate their current voting systems.

This graphic shows the state by state turnout:



Only 49% of eligible voters in Hawaii cast their ballot compared 78.1% in Minnesota.


This graphic shows the average times voters waited in line:

2008 vote


Vermont voters waited an average of 2.5 minutes, while South Carolina voters clocked in an average of 61.5 minutes. Hope they brought a book to read while waiting on line. Speaking of which, for more background on the EPI, read The Democracy Index.

The Democracy Index
Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It
Heather K. Gerken


Table of Contents

Sample the Introduction [HTML] or [PDF]

“Racial Resentment” and the Undecided Voter by Lynn Vavreck (at Campaign Stops blog)

Lynn Vavreck has a terrific article at the Campaign Stops blog charting the influence of “racial resentment” on the likelihood that individual voters will vote for President Obama.

She defines racial resentment as “one of a set of regularly used political science measures of attitudes about race. It is born from the concept of symbolic racism, which has its share of critics. Essentially, it is a scale of four survey questions asking people to agree or disagree with questions about whether ‘generations of slavery’ have made it hard for blacks to work their way up the economic ladder – or whether blacks would be as well off as whites if they only ‘tried harder.’”

The data looks like this:

What does it mean?

Vavreck explains that the data show “the racial attitudes of undecided voters do not affect their vote for or against Obama as dramatically as those same attitudes affect otherwise-similar early deciders. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as more good news — another blow at the caricature. Perhaps undecided voters are truly post-racial. If race mattered to them as much as it does early deciders, they’d have already made up their minds, as the more partisan do. Maybe these voters are the ones who have moved ‘beyond’ race, at least in terms of their candidate selection.”

Read the complete, informative piece here:

Robert Goodin and the Settling of a President

First the Republicans had to settle for Mitt Romney. And today, for those in both parties still not feeling inspired by either candidate, it’s time to settle once again. But is that really such a bad thing? Robert Goodin‘s On Settling, called by The Wall Street Journal a “gentle meditation on a subject that is larger and more controversial than it may at first seem”, suggests that although we live in a restless culture that worships a ‘shoot for the stars’ ideal, settling is actually how we get anything important done. Life is about choice; Goodin says it’s time to make one. If you still need inspiration to head to the polls, read his post here:



The Settling of a President

Robert Goodin


The story of the 1968 presidential campaign, after the dead bodies and tear gas were cleared away, was “the selling of the president.”  The intrusion of marketers and big money into politics, an increasingly familiar phenomenon over the intervening decades, has ratcheted up several notches yet again this year.  Still, the real story of the this election lies elsewhere, in “the settling of a president.”

If Dr King was the dreamer and Senator Obama the dream, President Obama is perforce the doer.  Soaring rhetoric inspires, but hard slog is what gives words practical effect.  As president, Obama settled in and settled down to work, leaving the lofty speeches behind.

As President Reagan said of naps, so too President Obama could well say of speeches:  you can’t have one every day.  Many who were attracted to the inspirational messaging find themselves bored by the mundane doing.  In one way, that is to mistake the nature of the job.  If it’s a weekly message of hope that you’re after, take yourself off to church, not the president’s press conference.

In another way, it is right to be disappointed that as president Obama has laid so very low rhetorically. Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt’s book of that title taught JFK, is the power to persuade.  Ironically, given his gifts, failing to explain and persuade people of the fundamental principles underlying his policies is perhaps the greatest failing of Obama in his first administration.  With congressional opponents who have sworn an oath of blind intransigence, appealing over their heads to the people at large is the only way forward.

As president, Obama has settled down not just rhetorically, but in other ways as well.  Any president – indeed any one of us – must settle for what we can realistically be done.  Of course we shouldn’t set our aspirations too low and settle too soon or for too little.  But inevitably, we have to accept some unfortunate features of the world as fixed, for now, in order to focus our energies elsewhere.  Attempting everything at once we would accomplish nothing at all.

The whole point of settling in some dimensions, however, is to enable us to strive more successfully in others.  Settling in every dimension is just plain “giving up.” Grubby deals are needed to get things done, anywhere.  But if there is nowhere Obama as the Great Compromiser is willing to draw a line in the sand, nothing he is simply not prepared to settle for, then the dream invariably seeps into the sand.

Citizens settle in an election, too, however.  Life is a series of choices among imperfect options.  Despite all the disappointed hopes, I will for my part settle for Obama.  He’s the best one on offer.  I’ll hope for better, if not in his wake (I do not expect to see a more able person in the White House in my lifetime), then perhaps in his second term.


Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.

Voting matters even if your vote doesn’t: A collective action dilemma

Voting is a good example of the kind of large-scale cooperation among non-relatives that makes our species so unusual a member of the animal kingdom. In their new book Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech explain that cooperation is stymied by two things: coordination problems and collective action dilemmas. In their previous post on this blog, they explained how ballots solve a coordination problem by allowing people to cast their votes strategically, i.e., for candidates who may not be their first choices but who have some chance of attracting enough votes to win. In this post, they take a look at voting as a collective action dilemma: Why do we vote when our chance of having an individual impact is so small?


Why Bother to Vote?

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


On Tuesday, well over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to vote (or will have voted already through early voting options).  They will do so despite the fact that voting takes time, effort, and preparation. They will need to figure out where their polling place is. They will need to find time before or after work or while the kids are at school to travel to that place. They may have trouble finding parking. They may have to stand in line. And they may worry whether they know enough about issues and whether they are making the right choice.

Each voter goes to this effort despite the fact that the chance that his or her vote will affect the outcome of the presidential election is infinitesimally small.  One scholarly estimate puts the chance that a given vote, even in a battleground state, will change the course of an election at 1 in 10 million.  Why, then, does anyone actually bother to vote?

Collective action dilemmas arise whenever everyone in a group would like some public good to be produced while also preferring that others in the group do the work to produce it.  The problem becomes worse whenever the group becomes large and whenever the impact of each individual contribution is low.  Voting in a large, democratic society thus should pose a collective action dilemma in the extreme.  The “paradox of voting,” as described by political scientist Anthony Downs more than a half century ago, asks why voting does not pose more of a collective action problem than it does. Clearly the costs exceed the benefits for the individual voter, and clearly the individual has little impact on the election outcome.  And yet, if no one voted, democracy would collapse.

Fortunately for democracy, many people tend to overestimate their own efficacy. One well-known study documenting this tendency comes from political scientist Terry Moe, who  found that members of the economic organizations he surveyed tended to overestimate the extent to which their own dues and other contributions would help the organizations achieve their goals.

Why do people tend to overestimate their own efficacy?  One possible evolutionary explanation of this finding begins with the simple observation that most people are not particularly good at understanding large numbers. Why would they be? Although the modern world may force us to deal with large numbers every day, for our ancestors, who lived in small groups and had no money, small numbers were the order of the day. Even today, many languages have counting systems that amount to nothing more than “one,” “two,” and “many.” Thus, even something as commonplace and essential to today’s society as voting may rely upon the difficulty we have with large numbers and our resulting tendency to overestimate the impact that our vote will have on an election’s outcome.

Another possible reason why we tend to overestimate our individual efficacy arises from an evolutionary insight regarding the way we make mistakes. Ideally, natural selection would have designed our minds with the ability always to make the right decision, accurately weighing the costs and benefits of our different options. In reality, we make errors, and those errors come with costs. If the cost of making one kind of error is much larger than that of making another kind, selection pressure on how we make that kind of decision will be asymmetrical. A tendency to make more of one kind of relatively low-cost kind of error rather than more of a relatively high-cost kind may be a design feature, not a flaw, of the human mind. This is the idea behind error management theory, developed by evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton and her colleagues. Another evolutionary psychologist, Randy Nesse, explains the idea with an analogy to smoke detectors. You might like to buy a smoke detector that only goes off when there is a true emergency and not simply when you are making toast, but in reality such a perfect smoke detector is impossible to design. Given a choice between a smoke detector that sometimes goes off when there is no real threat of a fire and one that sometimes fails to go off when there is a real threat of one, which would you choose?

Applying this idea to Moe’s observation, it may be that the error of contributing to a public good and having that contribution not bear fruit is often a small price to pay compared to the error of failing to help create a public good from which one would have benefitted greatly. Given that our ancestors lived in small groups, this could easily have pushed our psychology in the direction of erring on the side of participation by overestimating the degree to which our contributions really matter to the success of the collective action. Thus, an additional reason why we vote may be that the cost of voting is so small that it is worth paying on the off chance that one’s vote will actually make a difference. Something to keep in mind on November 6.

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:

Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan


Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

The Five Elements of Effective Electing–a guide from Edward Burger

If you’ve ever wondered if the way you’re thinking about things is holding you back, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking  is a must-read. Written by the acclaimed teacher and mathematician Edward Burger—a man whose electrifying teaching style has won him countless awards—the book teaches strategic goals for using our minds to realize goals effectively, creatively, and more successfully. Today Burger takes a specific look at how we’re thinking about voting, offering an alternative to heading to the polls armed with sound bites, our preconceptions, and little else (or, as Jason Brennan would call it, being a bad voter.) Check out Burger’s post here:


The Five Elements of Effective Electing

Edward Burger


This fall, the US will once again decide its fate by selecting its next batch of national, state, and local government leaders.  In 2008, the previous presidential election year, voter turnout was a whopping 57% of the voting-age population. Using modern political math, that works out to nearly 8 out of every 10 man, woman, and child. If you happen to be one of those patriotic citizens who plans on doing his or her civic duty on November 6 by pulling a lever, “X”-ing a box, or punching a chad, then the 64,000-dollar question (or with the help of today’s Super PACs, the 3.2 billion-dollar question) is: For whom will you vote?

Very recently I co-authored, with Michael Starbird, a tiny but practical guide to better thinking entitled, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. It offers everyone—students, teachers, parents, professionals, and life-long learners—the opportunity to “make up” their own minds and better tap their creativity and imagination through stories and examples as well as concrete action-items that can be directly applied to any circumstance and that can become useful habits to provoke thought. Here I briefly apply some of the lessons we developed to offer a straightforward way of determining your ideal candidate.

Identify and understand the issues that matter. The cost of a candidate’s haircut or a particularly fetching outfit’s designer might not be on the top of your list of issues that truly matter. Despite the topics on which the media or even the candidates themselves decide to focus, you need to determine which issues are important to you—whether they be social, national security, or financial issues, or issues that directly impact your community or family. Don’t let the media dictate what’s important to you. Work hard to deeply understand those issues you identified as well as why you’ve embraced the views you have. Invest the time to prioritize those issues so you know what matters most to you. Focus on the essentials.

Observe how well the candidates fail. Anyone who strives to be imaginative, creative, or bold will eventually make a misstep.  If your candidate has never failed, ask yourself, what—if anything—has that person been doing? If your candidate has failed, determine what lessons that person has learned from that experience. Study how the candidates evolved and moved, and decide if you agree with those corrected paths. Failing—unintentionally or deliberately—presents one with a great gift: the opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate. Discover exactly what the candidates have done in the past when they’ve stumbled upon or purposely solicited such a “gift.” If failing did not provoke a new insight or change in thinking, then you might want to keep shopping for candidates. Failure is a fantastic tool for moving forward.

Ask the right questions. Many questions will be hurled at the candidates and it’s often entertaining to watch politicians uncomfortably squirm or use the Teflon-approach and dodge those speeding queries faster than the man of steal. But by watching that drama unfold on-line or on TV, you are merely a passive listener. Instead, become an active listener: Create your own questions as you listen to the candidates or as you read their platforms and proposals. Even if you’re not one of the lucky few who actually get to directly question those politicians, you should still deliberately raise those questions in your mind.  Then discover who addresses those issues and assess their stands. By doing so, you are custom-tailoring the campaigns to your interests, concerns, and values. Become an active listener: Hear what is said, and often more importantly, take note of what is missing.

Determine where we’ve been and where you think we should go. One of the quotes that inevitably surfaces during a presidential campaign is: “This is the most important election in this country’s history.” Unless our voting district is Lake Woebegone, every presidential election cannot be the most important ever.  A more accurate and less melodramatic statement might be, “This is an extremely important election in this country’s future.” It is not wise to view an event or issue as sitting alone in a vacuum of a single moment in history (even if it’s touted as, “the most important”). You need to examine everything within context: From where we are emerging, to where we are today and where we need to go.  With presidential politics, it’s essential to look back (both long-term and short-term) and articulate the gains we’ve made as well as the losses we’ve incurred. Then you can thoughtfully assess our current state, define local and global directions in which to move forward, and find the candidate that shares that similar vision. Always focus on the flow—what’s past, what’s the here and now, and what’s next.

Decide how you want to change. By following the four previous modes of thinking, you will be transformed—you will realize new insights, identify other points of view, uncover unintended consequences, and even generate original thoughts. Through this process, you will not only quietly and clearly discover to your ideal candidate, but you will also discover your ideal self.

Focusing solely on sound bites, political pundits, and commercials is tantamount to flipping a coin in the voting booth or even worse, mindlessly handing your vote over to the loudest voice. Instead, cast your vote effectively and intelligently. As Mike Starbird and I wrote in the last chapter of our book:

When the American Founding Fathers imagined a democracy that would reflect the will of the people, the people they envisioned were thoughtful, independent-thinking citizens who would understand the issues of their day and would turn their own clear wisdom to making sound decisions for the benefit of society. Surely more than ever, the world needs thoughtful voices—voices that can ignore the bombast and heat of shallow excitement and focus instead on thinking calmly and sensibly about long-term goals and consequences. These elements of effective thinking will help you to become a quintessential citizen of the world—contributing personally and professionally, locally and globally.

Edward Burger can be reached at and followed (on Twitter) @ebb663. For more information about The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, visit or follow @5thinking. Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, an educational and business consultant, and most recently served as Vice Provost for Strategic Educational Initiatives at Baylor University. He is the author of over 60 research articles, books, and video series (starring in over 3,000 on-line videos). Among his many awards and honors, the Huffington Post named him one of their 2010 Game Changers; “HuffPost’s Game Changers salutes 100 innovators, visionaries, mavericks, and leaders who are reshaping their fields and changing the world.” In 2012, Microsoft Worldwide Education selected him as one of their “Heroes in Education”.


Exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index demonstrates how lack of election data impacts policies to combat voter fraud

Download an exclusive excerpt from this book,

A New-style Reformer Encounters
an Old Problem

Now that the candidates are selected and the campaigns are well underway, it seems as though politicos are turning an eye to the actual process of voting, and more specifically to ways to combat voter fraud. Pennsylvania is the latest state to require photo identification at the polls, a move that some view as disenfranchising voters in a key state with lots of electoral votes in the mix. In this exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken describes an earlier battle over voter ID laws (the Carter-Baker Commission) to illustrate what happens when you don’t have good data on which to base public policy.

Chuck Myers, Group Publishers of the Social Sciences, provides some additional context:

According to the polls we are facing a very close presidential election in which a few votes in a couple of swing states could determine who our next president will be. And yet our system of voting and counting our votes is a patchwork of local jurisdictions employing various technologies often of dubious quality that manages to lose or miscount thousands of votes in each election.

In addition, allegedly because of fear of possible voter fraud, many states are actually making it harder for citizens to cast their ballots, depriving more voters of their franchise. When an election is a lopsided contest, a few thousand votes one way or the other might not make any difference; however as we saw in Florida in 2000, in a close election miscounted votes–or voters who don’t even have a chance to vote because of their failure to meet purely technical requirements like having an official photo ID– have a real impact.

In The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken explores the problems created by our mismanaged electoral system and offers a solution to the problem, a solution driven by creating competition among jurisdictions for creating systems of voting that make it easier to vote and more certain that the votes will be accurately counted. She calls for an investment in collecting extensive data on the scope of the problem as well as the issue of voter fraud and then sets up a democracy index that will rank jurisdictions according to how well they perform in allowing Americans to perform a basic rite of citizenship.


Click here to download the PDF, A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem.


From A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem:

Spencer Overton’s problem is that he is fighting for change in a world without data. Indeed, he found himself in the middle of one of the biggest election reform battles we’ve seen in recent years—one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court—and lost in large part because he didn’t have the data he needed to make his case.

The fight was over voter identification—the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID when they cast a ballot at the polls. Voter ID has been a significant source of contention in election circles. Conservative commentators insist that an ID requirement deters fraud. Liberal commentators counter that the requirement is a disguised effort to suppress (largely Democratic) votes.* The rhetoric on both sides of the issue has been quite heated, with one side talking about stolen elections and the other side equating ID requirements with vote suppression.

Overton became embroiled in the issue when it was taken up by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Republican secretary of state James Baker. Though most of the members of the bipartisan commission had strong political ties, it included a handful of academics, including Overton.

The Carter-Baker Commission eventually staked out a position on voter ID that looked an awful lot like a political deal. It roughly tracked the compromise that would emerge if a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican sat down to work out something both sides could live with. The commission blessed the ID requirement (something Republicans usually want) while demanding that the state take affirmative steps to distribute IDs (something that Democrats would want if forced to accept an ID requirement).

Deal or no deal, the main problem with the commission’s position was that it was utterly unsupported by empirical evidence. A pure political compromise can be produced without coming to grips with the empirics; a sound decision cannot. Although the commission did an excellent job of amassing data on how our election system is run in many areas, this was not one where it managed to find much. As the commission itself stated, there is “no extensive evidence of fraud in the United States.” To the extent there is any evidence of fraud, it is almost entirely due to absentee voting scams or ballot-box stuffing, not the type of fraudulent in-person voting that photo ID is supposed to deter. The only other justification that the commission offered for its decision was that a photo ID requirement would enhance public trust in the system. That claim, too, was unsupported by empirical evidence (and may have been misplaced).

Overton did his best to persuade the other members of the commission not to endorse an ID requirement. Most advocates contesting voter ID have simply invoked civil-rights rhetoric. Overton called upon that tradition, but he mainly focused on the kind of cold-blooded cost-benefit arguments that conservatives stereotypically use. Working with the Brennan Center, he tried to amass data on the effects, good and bad, of photo ID. When he failed to change the majority’s mind, he published a forcefully worded dissent. I saw Overton a day after the fight went public. I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted.

The reason Overton faced such an uphill slog is that the data were haphazard and inconsistent. As he discovered, “No systematic, empirical study of the magnitude of voter fraud has been conducted at either the national level or in any state to date.” Nor were there any good studies on an ID requirement’s effect on voter behavior.

*That’s because many people from traditionally Democratic constituencies—poor people, racial
minorities—lack a driver’s license and would find it cumbersome to get an ID.

Of Ballots and Battles–Voting’s Coordination Problem

Who would you sincerely like to see as the next president? Did you approve of Obama’s support of gay marriage, but chafe at his bailout of the auto industry? Are you keen on Romney’s plans to cut taxes but worried about his stance on women’s healthcare? Maybe you’d like to pick someone else entirely? Voting presents a classic coordination problem. If you follow your purest impulse and write in the name of the person you think is going to run the country as you would like, as opposed to someone you could merely ‘accept’ as president (but who stands a realistic chance of attracting other votes), you fail to act strategically. Strategy, of course, requires cooperation. But how do the interactions between one another and the institutional structures we have created make cooperation possible? Lee Cronk and Beth Leech are the authors of Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, a study of how every facet of our lives is impacted by cooperative interactions. Read their post here on how the electoral process has evolved to address the seemingly simple but very complex problem that arises when the preferences and desires of individuals  overlap, but not quite.


Of Ballots and Battles

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


The upcoming major party conventions and the primaries that preceded them are all about one thing: Whose names will appear on the ballot in November. But why do we need a ballot at all? After all, ballots constrain our choices. People are often angry and may even decide not to vote when their preferred candidate fails to appear on the ballot. Why, then, don’t we simply write down the names of the people that we would prefer in a particular office? Wouldn’t that be the purest expression of voters’ desires?

Of course, if everyone walked into the voting booth with nothing but a pen and a blank piece of paper, they would have 150 million people to chose from (that’s about how many currently meet the requirements set out in the Constitution as native-born Americans 35 or older who have lived in the United States for at least fourteen years.) Some people would indeed vote for their heart’s true desire – the one person out of all who are eligible for a particular office that they would most like to see in that position. But some savvy voters would realize that even though they think their Uncle Ned would make a great president, so few others are likely to agree – or even to know who Ned is – that those voters would instead vote for someone they could accept as president but who also has a chance of attracting enough other votes to actually get elected. In technical terms, those voters would vote “strategically” rather than in accordance with their “sincere preferences.” If any one candidate could convince a plurality of the electorate to vote for him or her strategically, even if no voters at all preferred him or her over all other possibilities, then he or she would win the election.

The voter’s dilemma in such circumstances poses a coordination problem. Coordination problems occur when people have identical or at least overlapping preferences regarding some outcome, but they lack the common knowledge necessary to achieve those preferences. Solutions to the coordination problems usually come from shared knowledge. One very simple coordination problem is addressed in the title of our forthcoming  book, Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation. About fifty years ago, Yale economist Thomas Schelling (now at the University of Maryland) asked people in New Haven, Connecticut a simple question: If you were in New York City and you knew that you were to meet a friend there, but you and your friend had not previously agreed upon a time and place, where would you go, and when would you go there? Schelling’s respondents mostly said Grand Central Terminal at noon. Because commuter trains from New Haven arrive at Grand Central, it served as a prominent, salient solution to the coordination problem for Schelling’s respondents.

As UCLA political scientist Michael Chwe has pointed out in his book Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2003), solving coordination problems requires not only common knowledge about how they can be solved, but also common knowledge that there is common knowledge – in Chwe’s terminology, “common metaknowledge.” Imagine, for example, the coordination problem facing people in a crowded theater when a fire alarm goes off. Even if everyone in the theater knows that the best course of action is for everyone to move in an orderly fashion toward the exits, if they do not also know that everyone else also knows that this is the best way to behave, then they have no reason to act on their knowledge. The result of a lack of common metaknowledge is thus the same as a lack of common knowledge: a lack of coordination and a rush toward the exits.

From the voter’s point of view, elections present a coordination problem. Everyone has his or her own preferences regarding who holds elected office. Those preferences do not overlap perfectly, and for some people they may overlap not at all, but they do overlap enough that coordination is possible, at least in principle. This sort of coordination problem with a large dollop of conflict is similar to a famous game theoretical scenario called The Battle of the Sexes. Imagine a husband and a wife faced with the decision of whether to spend the evening at a boxing match or opera. The husband prefers the boxing match and the wife the opera, but both prefer spending the evening together rather than apart. Thus, their preferences overlap, but only partly. Similarly, you and your neighbor might prefer different candidates in your heart of hearts, but you have enough in common that you can agree that some third candidate is acceptable and perhaps also that some fourth candidate is not. In that case, you and your neighbor might set aside your hearts’ desires and instead vote for the candidate that you both find acceptable, instead.

However, doing this requires that you know that your neighbor is also likely to vote strategically, and vice versa: common knowledge and common metaknowledge. Ballots – and the primaries and conventions that create them – help solve this coordination problem. By reducing the range of choices down to just those few individuals who actually have a chance of winning, ballots help voters coordinate their efforts. Although very few will end up with the outcome that they most prefer, a plurality of people will end up with an outcome that they can accept. In the 1950s, this logic was developed by French sociologist Maurice Duverger and is now enshrined in what is commonly known as “Duverger’s Law”: in a place with single member district plurality voting, the efforts of voters to avoid wasting their votes will lead, in most instances, to a ballot with just two viable candidates. Stanford political scientist Gary Cox has since generalized Duverger’s Law to multi-member districts, showing that the tendency in a district with M members will be for the ballot to converge on M + 1 candidates.

We hope that we have convinced you of the value of ballots as solutions to coordination problems. However, if you still chafe at the way that they constrain your electoral choices, take heart: People who live in constituencies in which the outcome of an election is not in doubt can feel free to vote as their consciences dictate, whether that means voting for a candidate from the two major parties, voting for a third party candidate, or writing in someone’s name. In that situation, following one’s heart is not risky – and strategic voting is not tempting – because the winner is already known. Does it then follow that those of us who live in “battleground” states where the outcome is uncertain should set aside good old Uncle Ned and focus instead on those few individuals whose names actually do appear on the ballot? Perhaps! This is a question we will revisit in our next post on this blog, in which we will explore some of the reasons why people vote in the first place.


Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).

Will the bad voters please step forward? More from Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.


How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter

Jason Brennan


In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)

Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.

To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting.  He agreed that other people should not vote.

More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*

Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.

Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?

I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.

I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk.  Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop.  Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.

*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.

Shame on You, Voter! A Case for Not Voting from Jason Brennan

We often hear that it’s our civic duty to vote, but according to ethicist Jason Brennan, author of the controversial book The Ethics of Voting, most people have no business heading to the polls at all, since they won’t vote in an informed, competent, and morally reasonable way. But no harm done, right? Certainly voting is a high stakes game, with policies that impact our healthcare, our rights, and our economic realities hanging in the balance, but the reality is individual voters—even ignorant, biased, and irrational ones—carry almost no power.  Shouldn’t this liberate your average uninformed but patriotic citizen to exercise their democratic right and vote however they please? Not according to Brennan. Read his post on why you (and your logic-challenged uncle and your current events-blind friends) shouldn’t feel guilty for staying home on election day:


Most People Shouldn’t Vote

Jason Brennan


When I see people with an “I Voted!” sticker, my first thought is, “Shame on you!”

Imagine 12 people are serving on a jury in a murder case. The prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. The court asks the jury to reach a verdict. They find the defendant guilty.

Suppose four of the jurors paid no attention during the trial. When asked to deliberate, they were ignorant of the details of the case. They decided more or less at random.

Suppose four of the jurors paid some attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty not on the basis of the evidence, but on wishful thinking and on bizarre conspiracy theories they happen to believe.

Suppose four of the jurors paid attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty because he is an atheist, while they are Christians. Like many Americans, the jurors trust atheists no more than they trust rapists.

In the case above, the jurors acted in a vile and despicable way. The defendant is possibly innocent. He does not consent to the outcome of the decision. The decision will be imposed upon him through violence and threats of violence. The decision could harm him, and deprive him of property, liberty, or even life. Jurors have a moral obligation to decide these kinds of cases in a competent and morally reasonable way.

This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government.* The outcomes—including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on—are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.

However, as I document in The Ethics of Voting, the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent. Most are like the first eight jurors in the thought experiment above. (Most non-voting citizens are even worse.) If so, I argue, they owe it to the rest of us to abstain. Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

Of course, there’s a difference between jurors and voters. Individual jurors have a lot of power. Individual voters have almost no power. You are more likely to win Powerball than to decide an election. If so, does that excuse individual voters? My individual vote will not hurt anybody, so doesn’t that mean I can just vote however I’d like?

I don’t think so. I’ll illustrate why not with an analogy. Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. Suppose they are trained to shoot so that each bullet will hit the child at the same time. Suppose each bullet, on its own, would suffice to kill her. Suppose also that you can’t stop the shooters. The child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose the shooters offer to let you join in and fire with them. Is it okay for you to take the 101st shot?

Most people, upon reflection, think not. Even though you don’t make a difference, you have a moral duty to keep your hands clean. You have a duty not to join in with the group when the group harms innocent people. Only a monster would take the 101st shot, even though it makes no difference to the outcome.

So it goes with voting. If you are an ignorant, irrational, biased, capricious, or malevolent voter, your vote makes no difference. However, you’re the 101st shooter. We shouldn’t celebrate you for voting. We should hold you in contempt.


Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

Mitt Romney and When to “Settle”

Don’t settle for less. Striving is an ideal our culture worships. We’re in love with the romantic notions of ‘having arrived’, of forging ahead—black and white ideals that seem oblivious to the complexity of real life. We tend to equate settling with acknowledged failure, and in making the act so derogatory, we often set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. Are we blindly aspirational by nature? At what cost? Robert Goodin‘s forthcoming philosophy book On Settling is an intriguing look at how this maligned practice is not only more realistic, but also more useful than striving. It easily recommends itself as required reading for anyone trying to get into college, survive relationships, or weather a less than direct career trajectory.


But what about voters and candidates? Many of us settle on a candidate to vote for without really being over the moon with any of them, so I asked Professor Goodin if this is actually a good thing. Read on for his response, including his advice on when he thinks our leaders themselves should ‘settle’.





Bob Goodin


So the Republicans have settled on – and settled for, without any discernable enthusiasm – Mitt Romney.  (Which is not to say there is not a ton of money keen to unseat his opponent, from which even lackluster Mitt Romney will benefit.)


Were the Republicans wrong to do so?  Well, they had to settle on someone.  They need to have some name on the November ballot, after all.  And in settling it typically happens that you settle for something less than the absolute ideal.  In order to get on with things, you settle for something that is good enough for now – on the clear (self)understanding that you may come back and revisit the matter sometime later, as the Republicans quite certainly well come the 2016 election (assuming the Republicans don’t win the White House in 2012, which seems like a pretty safe assumption).


Democrats, for better or worse, are stuck with Barack Obama, an inspirational but ineffectual leader whose vacillation drives those who love him to utter despair.  The problem with Obama, ironically, is a constitutional incapacity to settle on some policy and push it through – deriving perhaps from an overweaning desire to be liked, or at least accepted.


One of my colleagues, who also runs an organization on which many people’s lives depends, embraces the slogan, ‘I may be wrong, but I’m never uncertain!’   Obama needs to take a leaf from that playbook, acknowledge that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and learn to settle on some course of acting reasonably expeditiously and pursue it unwaveringly.


Pick horses and back them.  At least for a time.  There may come a time to have a review of policy, reconsider, perhaps change course.  But unless a leader is prepared to commit firmly, at least pro tem, he is utterly incapable of acting effectively.  Obama needs to find some courage behind the convictions that he so clearly harbors, but that he so clearly has difficulty in actually acting upon.  Settle down.  Focus.  Do something, before your term in office is totally wasted.  (And putting tons of money into the pockets of health insurance companies is pretty shocking as the only feather in your cap.)


None of these matters are actually discussed directly in my book On Settling (forthcoming from Princeton University Press in a couple of months).  But such thoughts emerge naturally from my discussion there.


Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.

Heather Gerken’s Five Myths About Voting

We hear volumes about what’s wrong with the candidates and even the voters, but what exactly is wrong with the election process itself? Is it another “Florida in 2000” waiting to happen? And is it possible there exists a radical new solution that’s also deceptively simple? In her book, The Democracy Index, Heather Gerken proposes the Democracy Index, a system that would rate the performance of state and local election systems. A rough equivalent to the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities, the Index would respond to key problems: How long does it take to vote? How many ballots get discarded? How often do voting machines break down?

Writing for Election 101, Gerken gives us the five major myths about voting and voting reform, all of which point to why she feels a disaster is inevitable if we don’t embrace reforms now.


Five Myths about Voting

Heather Gerken


Myth 1:  The 2008 election ran smoothly.


As a member of the Obama for America’s national election protection team, I helped monitor the reports of thousands of lawyers, field staff, and volunteers across the country.  What scrolled across our computers that day was quite different from what was reported on November 5th.  While elections in some places ran smoothly, many jurisdictions fell apart as a wave after wave of voters crashed down on them.  The reason we never heard about these problems is simple.  The media reports on problems only when the race is close enough for them to affect the outcome, as in Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004.  People assume if the cameras turn off on election night, the election was a success.  What it really means is that the election wasn’t close.


Myth 2:  Breakdowns in voting systems are caused by partisanship.


Most people think that what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were caused by partisan mismanagement.  While partisanship played a role in those debacles, both states were victims of a turnout tsunami that too few states are equipped to handle.  The truth is that most election administrators are people of good faith trying to do a very hard job with very few resources.  Computer programmers have a rule called “Hanlon’s Razor,” which says that we should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.  I propose a different rule for elections:  never attribute to partisanship that which can be explained by a lack of resources.


Myth 3: We know what’s wrong with our election system and how to fix it.


Our sense of what’s wrong with our election system depend largely on anecdote and educated guesses.  While most private and public organizations relentlessly measure, election administration – which all but lends itself to hard numbers — is a world without data.  Without basic information on how well jurisdictions are performing, we cannot identify even the basic drivers of performance, let alone solutions to more discrete problems.  That’s why I’ve proposed creating a Democracy Index, which would rank states and localities based on how well elections are run.   It would ask the basic questions that matter to most voters:  How long were the lines?  How many ballots got discarded?  A Democracy Index would give us the data we need to spot, surface, and solve the problems that plague the system.


Myth 4:  Election reform will be costly and time consuming


The first and most important step we can take to reform our elections is easy and cheap:  gathering data and distilling it into an accessible form.  While data collection takes money, that investment would be modest compared to the potential payoff.  Without good data, we cannot be confident we know the problem, let alone have the right solution.  By providing reliable, comparative information on election performance, a Democracy Index would make election problems visible to voters.  It would give policymakers the tools they need to target problems and identify solutions.  And it would help bureaucrats sift through remarkably varied local policies to pinpoint best practices.  Before we throw resources at the problem, we need to know what the problem is and how to solve it.


Myth 5:  The only solution to our problem is nationally mandated standards and a nonpartisan election system . . . and politicians will never create them.


While every other developed democracy uses a national nonpartisan system to run elections, our system is highly decentralized and often run by partisans.  The key is to stop complaining about these unusual features and figure out how to take advantage of them, harnessing local competition and partisanship in the service of reform.  A Democracy Index would do just that.  By making problems visible and highlighting best practices, an Index would give politicians an incentive to care about performance while pushing administrators to conform to best practices.  A Democracy Index would not mandate national performance standards, take power from partisan officials, or even endorse best practices.  But it would push toward better performance, less partisanship, and greater professionalism.  It is the type of small reform that makes bigger, better reform possible.


Heather K. Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where she teaches election and constitutional law. She is a frequent media commentator on elections and has written for the New Republic, Roll Call, Legal Affairs, and the Legal Times.