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Vote choice and referendums

Apparently they didn't

Via Matthew Shugart comes this discussion at the LSE blog about public opinion and electoral system reform in the United Kingdom.

One of the takeaway points for me is that voters have consistently voiced strong support for systems that are more proportional, but that support quickly evaporates once it is described to them what a proportional representation system is. This isn’t that surprising; traditional tradeoffs between fair and effective governance, although overstated, are easier to make when they are abstract.  When you start to think about how they will impact your preferred party, however, things might be different.

This made me curious to see if there has been anything written about vote choice and direct democracy, with a particular interest in the impact of elite signaling.   The best thing I found was this paper by Simon Hug and Pascal Sciarini, which discuss how different variables about a referendum affect vote choice. Examining data from fourteen European integration referendums, Hug and Sciarini essentially claim that issue saliency determines voting behavior.  In important “first-tier” elections, voters make a decision by weighing the actual issue.  On less important “second-tier” elections, voters may base their decision on their assessment of the ruling party.  This comes in the form of voting against the wishes of the government if one is dissatisfied, and voting in favor if one is supportive. This makes sense but it only explains voting behavior using a rational choice/retrospective model, where voters retroactively form their opinions of parties after evaluating their performance in office.

I’m not against looking at things this way, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for every type of referendum.  The UK AV referendum, in particular, doesn’t fit any existing model.  I’m not sure if the election would count as “first or second tier” in importance – the 40 percent turnout leads me to believe second –  but I don’t  think it matters. Even if it was first tier, voters would not be able to punish the ruling government as it was made up of a coalition divided on the issue.  To me, it’s very difficult for a voter to not weigh the issue through a partisan filter because the referendum is essentially a vote on future partisan performance. Yet, as we’ve previously discussed here, there still seemed – at least according to one earlier survey – that a decent amount of partisans were going against their party.  I would like to see more written about this by people who know more and have more data to play with.  I’m guessing that committed Tory and LibDem partisans took cues from their party leaders.  Labour partisans, having been sent such mixed signals from thier elites, would be interesting to examine.  Did Labour voters have a clear idea over whether AV would help or hurt them?  I think you could make arguments either way but I’m not sure what they heard. Also, how did those with weak identification vote, if they even turned out?

Let’s ‘AV a beer!

As I’ve previously mentioned, citizens of the UK will go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to adopt an Alternative Vote (AV) system, or retain FPTP.  As a non-Brit, I’m strongly in favor of voting reform.  While I think the benefits of AV are overstated, FPTP is generally a horrible system that only manages to stay around because it institutionalizes itself through the party system it helps create.  But don’t take my word for it, here is the best pitch for AV.

Alternative Voting campaigns in the UK

On May 5, UK citizens will head to the polls in a special referendum to decide if the country should move to an Alternative Voting (AV) system.  Unfortunately, recent polling predicts the measure will fail as the “no” campaign seems to be building a bigger lead.  There are plenty of places to read about the politics of the referendum, so I just wanted to focus on the campaign tactics being used by the respective camps and briefly speculate if there is any evidence they are having an impact on vote preference .   First, there is this widely clever ad from the “Yes” campaign.

This is a great advertisement, but it’s actually not the main talking point of the “Yes” campaign, which seems to be pushing the notion that AV will make Representatives work harder.

Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three. They’ll need to work harder to get – and keep – your support.

This doesn’t sound like the most convincing argument to me, although I’m sure it was the message that tested the best in focus groups.   Still, I find it much better than this “No” campaign spot, which seems to better represent that campaign’s overall message.

In order to understand how an AV system works you need to be able to count to three;  it’s really not much harder than that.  This isn’t, however, a surprising line of attack; efforts at voting reform in the United States have often run up against the same.  As misleading as that ad was, I think the false trade-off between critical national interests and voting is even more absurd.

Keeping a FPTP system will help the UK fund its military in the same way cutting NPR will help the United States eliminate the national debt.  This ad is even more insulting than the last.

Are any of these campaigns effective?  I think the evidence from surveys show that it’s difficult to prove:

The poll shows that while Liberal Democrat voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (66 per cent to 26 per cent) and Conservative voters are overwhelmingly opposed (76 per cent to 19 per cent), Labour voters remain divided, with 47 per cent backing FPTP No and 41 per cent backing AV.

To me, this implies that vote choice might be predominantly a function of partisan preference; the Michigan Model  for the United Kingdom.  Of course I don’t really know enough about UK politics to know if partisan attachment is more or less stable than the United States.  I would think the nature of their parties would make it more so, which would lead me to expect a greater correlation between party ID and preference on AV. Still the fact that support for the referendum has swung so drastically, with a large number of undecideds moving to one camp, may be evidence that people who have not paid much attention are now taking cues from party elites.  Not the best way to choose an electoral system, but another example that they are highly endogenous to their political environment.

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