Rational voting

hdzwzq71-300x300Sometime in the late 1990s, a magazine I read regularly ran an article in which two professors of political science made the case for increasing the size of the United States House of Representatives from 435 to 635. I was sure this article had appeared in The Atlantic, and that magazine did run a different article proposing the same thing in 1992.  I can’t find the article I’m thinking of in their archives or the archives of any other magazine I was reading in those days, so I’m stumped as to where it could have been.

The case for increasing the number of seats from 435 was fairly straightforward. The Constitution leaves it up to Congress to determine the number of seats in the House, and the number rose steadily with US population from 1789, when 65 Representatives stood for a population of about 4 million, until 1911, when 435 Representatives stood for a population of about 92 million.  Now the population is over 320 million, and there are still just 435 Representatives.  Since each state has at least one Representative, that means that the Representative from a sparsely populated state such as Wyoming speaks for 585,000 people, while each Representative from a heavily populated state such as New York speaks for over 700,000 people.*  Since each state’s share of the vote for US president is determined by its total number of seats in Congress, this also implies that small states are over-represented in voting for president.  In very close elections, this over-representation can tip the balance; it is likely that if there had been 635 seats in the House in 2000, for example, that Albert A. Gore rather than George W. Bush would have been declared the winner of that year’s presidential election.**

The case against increasing the number above 635 was more complex. The authors of this article, whoever they were, explained a body of political science literature which examines voting behavior in legislative bodies. This literature showed that, when a chamber has more than about 650 seats, it becomes very difficult for its members to engage effectively in strategic voting (a.k.a. “tactical voting” or “instrumental voting.”)  The likelihood that any given question would be settled by a margin of one vote shrank to such a low order of probability that in chambers with more than 650 seats only those members who held positions that enabled them to control other members’ votes made their voting decisions based on the likely outcome of the vote, while members who neither controlled followers nor submitted to the control of leaders found themselves isolated, forming metaphorical “islands” from which they would use their votes expressively, signaling preferences for which they were not in a position to press in the negotiations where legislation was written and national policy formulated. As an example of a legislative chamber with too many seats, the article cited studies of the parliament of Zaire in the days when that parliament had over 1000 members. That, incidentally, is how I know that article came from the late 1990s, since Mobutu was overthrown and Zaire renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1997, and I remember that those events were quite fresh in my mind when I read the article.  I would say it was published sometime between June 1997 and June 1998.

The same article does allow that it is difficult for a group as large as 635 to operate on a basis of strategic voting, and mentions that the single organization most studied by political scientists looking into strategic voting is the United States Supreme Court, which has a nine-member electorate. Still, they do argue quite persuasively that in many groups as large as 635 do effectively function on that basis, and can find no reason why the US House of Representatives should not do so as well.

I think of this mystery article quite often, not only because the US House and the US presidential election system are often in the news, but also because the ideas of expressive voting and strategic voting are often hot topics.

It strikes me that if the maximum size of an electorate in which strategic voting makes sense is somewhere slightly north of 650, then voters in virtually every public election in the USA would be wise to make a habit of casting their ballots expressively. That is to say, except in the few villages and rural precincts where fewer than 650 voters are likely to turn out, voters should support the candidate who most closely reflects their actual views, not the candidate whom they regard as likeliest to win the election.  This view is supported by the behavior of elected officials, who use ever-more sophisticated techniques to examine election returns in search of votes they might be able to gain next time around and who resolutely ignore the opinions of people whose votes either they or their opponents can take for granted.

In an election where four candidates are available, a leftist, a Democrat, a Republican, and a rightist, therefore, a voter who is satisfied with the Democrat or the Republican will be wise to vote for that candidate. A voter who thinks that the two parties have become too different from each other will be able to signal that opinion by voting for the party opposite the one s/he usually favors; analysts are quick to note such defections and to present them to candidates as grounds for moving closer to the other party’s policy profile. A voter who thinks that the major parties have become too similar can signal that opinion by voting for whichever fringe candidate s/he would like to see have an influence on the major party s/he usually prefers; that vote will show the major party that it is leaving votes on the table by tacking in the direction favored by its main opponent, and if there are enough votes like it office-holders and candidates will take them into consideration as they conduct public affairs.

It does mystify me that so many Americans, left and right, seem to regard it as a mark of virtue to vote for candidates who disgust them.  Granted, Candidate A embodies all the evils that beset our country, and will only make them worse, but Candidate B is EVEN WORSE, and so we dare not vote for anyone other than Candidate A. What if Candidate B wins by a margin of one vote?

Well, unless Candidate B is running for mayor of a tiny village, s/he will not win by a margin of one vote.  People who would never buy a lottery ticket, because the odds of any given ticket being a winner are millions to one against, will construct elaborate, tortured arguments in favor of voting based on the idea that someday an important election might be decided by one vote.  Yet there usually is at least one winning ticket in a lottery, so there is some minuscule chance of a ticket being a winner, while elections where the voters number in the thousands or millions are never decided by the margin of one vote. So strategic voting in such elections is not only like playing the lottery, it is like playing a lottery which has never once paid a prize after centuries of continuous operation.

I suspect the reason for this attachment to strategic voting over expressive voting has something to do with gender.  Words like “strategic,” “tactical,” and “instrumental” are associated with competitive activities such as sports, war, and business, and are therefore tagged as masculine in a society like the USA.  Words like “expressive,” “signaling,” and “communicative” are associated with the arts, personal relationships, and education, and are therefore tagged as feminine.  Strategic voting is sometimes called simply “rational voting.”  That phrase would imply that it is rational to vote based on the premise that this election, unlike every similar election in all of history, will be decided by a single vote, while it is irrational to vote based on the premise that politicians and parties analyze election returns and craft their approach to governing with an eye to maximizing their support in future elections.  That implication is so bizarre that the only explanation for calling strategic voting “rational voting” is that “rational” in that phrase simply means “masculine.”



  1. I registered Green in hopes of having a “fringe” perspective available, one that might influence the debate. California has since instituted a Top Two primary that eliminates all smaller parties from the general election ballot, thus making protest or statement votes impossible at that point.

  2. That’s too bad. Without minor parties, what can you do when the two major parties become too much alike? If you don’t vote, the pros tend to assume you’ll never vote again, so abstaining doesn’t give the parties an incentive to become less alike.

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