Making Voters Rational: Mail ‘Em a Ballot

November 4th, 2008

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about Bryan Caplan‘s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book that I spend a lot of time thinking about (and frequently disagreeing with). You can get the gist of it over on Amazon; I’ll just say that it greatly advances the discussion regarding the (de)merits of democracy. Cf. also Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom on the distinction between democracy (a.k.a. majority rule) and constitutional liberalism. (They’re not the same thing, and the former can seriously interfere with or even destroy the latter.)  And check out Greg Mankiw’s long-ago post pointing out that people who don’t vote (or don’t vote every item on a ballot) are probably “rationally delegating the decision to their better educated neighbors.”

But as a Washington State resident I can unequivocally endorse a method to make all voters more rational: voting by mail.

For more than a decade, you’ve been able to sign up here to have a ballot and voter pamphlet automatically mailed to you for every election. They simply arrive at your door, every time, a couple of weeks in advance.

Then when you have a free hour you sit at your kitchen table with your ballot (and your spouse/children/friends) and go through the pamphlet, reading the positions, pros, cons, and state auditor reports. You can jump on the web to see what people are saying, call or email friends who might have considered an issue more than you, and generally take the time to make reasoned, rational decisions.

You might still skip some items on the ballot, because you don’t feel you have a cogent opinion. I always do. (King County Superior Court judges?? Why are we electing them?)

But the votes that you do make are grounded much more firmly in the front brain, because you have time to actually use the damn thing. (Since I’m spending a large portion of my bodily resources supporting it, I like to take it out for a spin every now and then.)

Finally, it’s just a damned pleasant way to vote.

Update: I note that Greg Mankiw has linked to an alternate view by Tim Fedderson, suggesting that the masses are indeed wise (in aggregate). Bryan Caplan’s co-blogger Arnold Kling points out that this is a “most un-Bryanesque column.” In any case I still think that voting by mail can make voters wiser.

  1. ER
    November 4th, 2008 at 15:35 | #1

    Gotta disagree with you on this one. I actually like going to vote at my polling place. I like the sense of community, that we’re all there working together to make our city/state/country a better place. It feels like active democracy to me. When I’ve used the absentee ballots on occasion, there’s something a little too detatched about the process.
    I also dislike how much rigamarole is involved in filling out & packaging your absentee ballot correctly – your chances of invalidating your ballot accidentaly are far higher than when you go in & vote in person.

  2. November 6th, 2008 at 18:42 | #2

    I agree that in-person voting has an undeniable charm, and brings people together in a valuable way. But there are a lot of ways for people to gather together. I’d rather have better-researched and -reasoned decisions driving the election results.

  3. ER
    November 8th, 2008 at 13:33 | #3

    Can’t argue with that!

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