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[Comments] (5) How To Exercise Political Power Part 1: IF you'll recall, in our last seminar on politics I mentioned that in a representative democracy, politics is the fusion of two separate professions: campaigning and governing. The art of scheming to acquire power and the art of wielding power.

Also mentioned before were the weirdos who make careers out of politics (they are actually no weirder than computer programmers, though their personality disorders tend toward more the extroverted end of the Table of Mental Abberation). These people are trying to gain political power, almost certainly at your expense. But they're working on it full time and you're not. What they know is that political power is a pyramid scheme, and that while you almost certainly cannot get as much as you want, you can get more than you deserve. There is a secret, but not a hidden one. The secret is voting.

"Yeah, right, get real," you say. "Voting? There's no way my vote will count!" Yes, this is true. Even if you live in Ohio or Florida, your vote tomorrow will count so little as to be negligible. Some people in my rhetorical position would counter this argument by bringing up obscure Alaskan elections decided by a margin of one vote. I think this does a disservice to democracy so I prefer to stipulate the point and lure you into a false sense of complacency.

The reason your vote counts for so little is that you're not the only person in the country. You're just one person and there are hundreds of millions of other people who could vote if they wanted to. Many of them do! We each think of life as a narrative where we are the star, but the surest way to shatter that illusion, besides looking up at the night sky, is to look at election results.

If you live, like me, in a state like California or Texas, you have seen this happen in many presidential elections. The people of most states have such similar demographics that their electoral votes are taken for granted and nobody pays attention to them. Sure, their votes are important in the aggragate. Without their electoral votes--the accumulated votes of you, the New Yorkers and Tennesseeans--the campaign taking those electoral votes for granted would surely falter. But your vote? No.

A standard response to the my-vote-is-meaningless complaint is that you should make sure your vote reflects an informed decision on your part. This almost makes sense but not quite. Obviously you should decide how to vote via some rational or at least emotional process. Flipping a coin to decide your vote is about the same as not voting at all--the only thing your vote has going for it is that it's yours and not some lousy coin's[0]. Even voting based on a last-minute gut instinct (which is what I do when I can't decide) is better than voting randomly. But the system of elections won't treat a coin-flip vote any differently from a well-considered vote.

However it does treat two votes differently from one vote. What you need to do is create or take advantage of a vote multiplier. Once you reach your decision, you need to somehow convince more people to vote the same way. Then in a sense you'll all share that block of n votes. Your own vote will still count for basically nothing, but mentally you'll take credit for all n of the votes. You'll feel better, and in a real sense you'll have more power.

Before the Internet this meant convincing other people in your state to vote with you, and most such attempts were crushed into dust by large margins of victory and the Electoral College[1]. But now, thanks to HTTP and SMTP, you can reach people in the states over which the Demographics Fairy has waved her swing-state wand. Assuming you can afford it, it's even easy to even go to such exotic locales and help run get-out-the-vote operations, where you get people who were already sympathetic to your cause to actually go into the dang voting booth already. And thanks to a polarized electorate, your efforts might actually make enough of a difference to satisfy your average-citizen-level lust for raw power!

This feels like you're gaming the system, but it is actually how the system is supposed to work. People aren't supposed to be furtive about voting, as though it were an annual bout of flatulence. You're supposed to argue and convince other people. I don't do this because I am really really shy, but that's how you do it if you want to do more than just pull the lever. Working for a campaign, or running for office yourself, is just an attempt to get a bigger vote multiplier. A good campaign uses vote multipliers to best advantage and helps people create their own vote multipliers.

I have made out amazingly well on this score with respect to this presidential election. I spent three months working for a political campaign which ultimately failed but had some long-term effects on the race. Some software I wrote for that campaign got picked up by one of the major campaigns (thanks to Josh Hendler) and provided vote multipliers to lots of other people. My totally random estimate is that I've had as much effect on the political campaign as maybe 100 or 1000 people actually casting votes in Ohio, which is huge and way more than I expected. That plus the California vote I'm going to cast tomorrow, which would be useless even if I weren't going to vote along with most of California. But I'm not complaining, because I now understand why my vote is useless and I know what I can do in the future to feel like I made a real contribution to an election cycle.

The other way to get a bigger vote multiplier is to lower your scope. Stop obsessing over the national election! That's where everyone is paying attention. Look at a state or local election. Because fewer people are interested, your vote counts for proportionally more and any vote multipliers you get are automatically increased.

Unfortunately, the reason people aren't as interested in local politics is because usually, local politics are incredibly boring (this is eg. why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California). Some say that lowering your scope is not for them precisely because local politics are incredibly boring. What they do not realize is that all forms of politics are incredibly boring. A major political technique is making your opponents so bored that they give up. Anything exciting is probably a distraction put up by one faction, or something that hundreds of people are already working on and that you can't get close to unless you want to make a career out of it (I don't say this to denigrate making a career out of such things, but it's not for me). This can have a real effect on your life, though often more than portions of politics that get orders of magnitude more attention.

I wanted to get this one out now, but soon I will do a companion piece to this one talking about the other half of politics and how to get the most out of your government dollar. The election is tomorrow, but the government we will always have with us.

Also, go vote tomorrow if you're American. I trust you to be reasonable, and I don't know any of you who live in swing states, so I'm not going to lecture you about who to vote for. But think about this for next time. I don't want you to think that you are powerless, because it's not true. You just don't have as much power as you need to set everything right. You need to get some other people on your side.

[0] Anyway, coins have previous presidents on them, which opens them up to bias. If you flip a quarter you're likely to find yourself voting a straight Federalist ticket.

[1] Let me state for the record that I think the Electoral College is a bad idea and that I will still think it's a bad idea even if it gives me a result I like, say, tomorrow.

PS: There is a whole darker side to get-out-the-vote operations, where you run the vote multiplier equation in reverse and try schemes to get your opponent's supporters to not vote. I know from experience there can be a huge temptation to think "Man, if only the other guy's supporters would just not vote, we'd have it made" (I had similar thoughts during the Feb. 2 primaries, and I was trying really hard not to). There's a big gap between thinking this, though, and saying it, and another big gap between saying it and doing something about it.

I could go on and on about this and the anatomy of GOTV pathologies (even on the non-darker side) in general, but this piece is already long enough. I can go into more detail if you want. For now, I will end on a partisan note by pointing out that one of the major American political parties benefits, on average, when one more person votes; the other one benefits, on average, when one fewer person votes. Even with my cynical view of human nature I would rather align myself with the first party or, if I couldn't bring myself to do that, try to make the second party more like the first in this regard.

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Posted by Kevan at Tue Nov 02 2004 05:29

Nicely put. I've been enjoying the fact that I've been able to multiply-up my initial US election vote of "zero", from the UK.

Posted by pedro at Tue Nov 02 2004 14:43

Where is the NYCB suggestion box? I'd like to see a post detailing how one party benefits from voting and the other from non-voting.

Posted by Brendan at Tue Nov 02 2004 16:03

I wrote one, Pedro, but you might not like it.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Nov 02 2004 16:28

pedro, the NYCB suggestion box is my email box. I got your piece on the Electoral College and will post about it later, probably later this week. Hopefully after people have stopped caring about it for another 4 years.

Now, to your query. As with most voting-related things, it goes back to the relationship between individual voters and the groups they form. Only in this case, instead of you plus your circle of people you've convinced or gotten to vote, it is you and people of similar demographics viewed statistically.

Consider a very simplified model of an election with two major candidates. They're about tied among the population as a whole, but candidate A has more support among demographic group X, and candidate B has more support among (possibly overlapping) demographic group Y. The strategy for each is to canvas as many people as possible in their favored group, with special focus on any overlap between X and Y, because that's an obvious place to look for undecideds. They'd do this by buying lists from member organizations, canvassing specific neighborhoods or calling people with certain surnames.

Pretty typical so far. Now suppose further that demographic group Y is more numerous than X, but that historically fewer Ys than Xes vote. Then candidate A is more likely to win the election (because they're tied among the population as a whole). But if one more person voted, that person would probably be a Y, and they'd probably vote for B. If a lot more people voted than expected, the aggregate average boost for B could be enough to make B win the election instead of A. But if one fewer person voted, that person would probably be a Y, so B would get one fewer vote. A's lead would be more secure.

Candidate B can afford to take the high road and talk about the sacrament of voting and be much less careful about how they spend GOTV money without worrying about inadvertently helping their opponent. On the other hand, candidate A is in a tough spot. They have to focus more on getting every last X to vote, and making sure their efforts are actually targeting Xes. It's taboo to publicly try to discourage people from voting, but there would be all sorts of perverse incentives for A supporters to use technicalities and unofficial dirty tricks to, eg. keep people away from the polls or slow down voting in Y-dominated precincts.

So much for the hypothetical. Now, in real American elections, it's generally the case that most of the people who could vote but don't are either young and/or non-white. Both these groups tend to vote Democratic. So if one additional person votes, the Democratic candidate gains over half of a vote and the Republican candidate gains less than half of a vote. But if one fewer person votes, the Democratic candidate loses over half of a vote while the Republican candidate loses less than half of the vote. If the race is close, this puts the Republicans in the unenviable position of the hypothetical candidate A.

Ideally this wouldn't be a problem because ideally the Republican party would appeal to a broader base, or because ideally everyone would vote (which would mean that, except in the Midwest, the Republicans would get clobbered for a couple election cycles until they retooled to appeal to a broader base). But that's what tends to happen now.

Posted by pedro at Tue Nov 02 2004 17:11

Very interesting... I guess I have understood that scenario for a while but never really thought about it in terms of a close election like this.

Just for the record, I meant the Electoral College thoughts for Leonard R. Personally and not as a NYCB submission, but I would love to see hear the leonardr perspective either here or via email.

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