What’s a Vote (It’s not the guy on second)

“Lord Nelson has a vote.”

“No Baldrick, Lord Nelson has a boat.”

                                               — Blackadder


In Blackadder’s London, some people may have a boat, but it seems that virtually no one has the vote. Today, of course, voting is a considerably more common occurrence than it was in Britain in the late 1700s, even if the results are not always quite as comic as they are when Rowan Atkinson gets his hands on the process. What, though, is a vote? We’ve determined that it’s not something in which one can sail, even if the process may sometimes leave people feeling a little seasick.

At root, voting is merely one of the six methods that a group can use to make a decision and move forward. Voting, or majority rule, is popular in large part because voting to make decisions is an obvious and central part of the larger culture of United States and other democracies.  In other words, it’s a culturally normative behavior.

Voting systems rely on several tacit assumptions: members of the group understand the issues; members are able to argue with one another effectively and resolve questions around the issues; members have developed a solid communications and social structure; members of the group will support the final decision reached by the group.

In small groups, these assumptions are often, though not always, valid provided that the group membership has developed fairly strong, trusting relationships with one another. As groups get larger, member connections become thinner and even the boundaries of group membership may become somewhat diffuse: it’s easy to see the boundaries of a specific department in a company, while it’s much harder to define the exact boundaries of a group such as “Red Sox fans.”

When the assumptions that underlie voting are violated, the voting system starts to break down in various ways. The most common, and obvious, breakdown is that the debate moves from a battle over ideas to a battle over votes: I don’t have to come up with good ideas so long as I can sell my ideas better than you can sell your ideas. Alternately, perhaps I can call the vote by surprise so your side won’t have enough people there, lock your allies in the restroom while the vote is being held, or otherwise take away your ability to influence the outcome of the vote. There’s a reason why many organizations have explicit rules requiring quorums and prior announcements of when a vote is going to be held, as well as rules specifying who gets to vote.

Claiming that the vote was rigged in some way is often a variant on the voter suppression approach: it’s a way of not facing the unpleasant reality that maybe most of the people didn’t like my ideas. In a large group, it’s particularly easy to perceive a vote as rigged if you happen to be surrounded by people who are voting as you are. This creates a false sense of unanimity as the local echo chamber reinforces the idea that “everyone” supports your view. This makes the actual result all the more shocking. The fact that sometimes a vote can be rigged does complicate this issue; fortunately, the larger the scale of the voting process, the harder that is to do.

Losers of a vote may also try to protect their ideas by consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the majority result: if the decision turns out to be “wrong,” even if because some members of the group kept it from working, then the losing party in the vote can claim that the group should have chosen their option instead. This behavior manifests in small groups fairly often, and can sometimes force the group to reconsider its decisions. Sometimes, though, the behavior is purely a means of saying, “see I was right all along!” even as the entire group fails. I worked for a startup or two many years ago that failed in part because of this type of behavior. For some people, being right was more important than being successful.

Depending on how the voting rules are set up, a majority rules system can degenerate into a minority rules system. Minority rule is another group decision making method, although frequently a dysfunctional one. In minority rule, the group adopts a decision supported by, as the name would imply, a minority of the group. Sometimes this is due to railroading the vote and not giving anyone a chance to object, sometimes minority rule is the result of each person assuming that they are the only ones who have doubts about a course of action, and so not speaking up. Sometimes, minority rule can result from a plurality voting system in which only a single vote will be held and multiple choices leave one option with more votes than any single one of the others, although less than half of the total. Some systems allow for subsequent rounds of voting with only the top finishers or have some form of preferential balloting in order to avoid this problem. Minority rule can also result from voter suppression or indifference.

Voting systems can also break down as individual people try to deal with the choices in front of them. Groups may move through a series of votes in order to reduce a large set of options down to a smaller number: in a sense, the group is sorting out its priorities and feelings about the different choices, making a series of decisions on potentially superficial criteria in order to reduce the decision space to something more manageable. At any point in this process, not all members of the group will always like the set of options that the group is considering. Sometimes this is because the group has already eliminated their favorite option; sometimes, it’s because members may not want to accept that other options are infeasible, impractical, or otherwise unavailable: members of a jury get to vote on each individual charge, but not on anything that wasn’t part of the court case, regardless of their feelings on the matter. Sometimes the group as a whole simply didn’t know about or care to investigate particular options that some members feel strongly about. In all of these cases, and others that you can probably imagine, individuals are left with a menu of choices that they might not like.

Group members may drop out of the process as their favorite options are eliminated, particularly if their only interest in the vote is a particular decision or outcome; depending on circumstances, this could represent a form of tunnel vision, as those members forget about the larger goals of the group and become stuck on one specific outcome. This can also be a form of trying to prove the majority wrong, as discussed above.  In some cases, other group members may become more invested later in the process, either because they didn’t care much which option was selected so long as they have a voice near the end, or because they realize that the vote isn’t going the way they expected.

The problem at this point is that, all too often, everyone involved in the voting process is totally focused on the choices and the process, not on the point of voting: it’s to make a decision that lets the group select a course of action that will, at least in the opinions of enough members, advance its goals. Which goals get prioritized is, in a very real sense, a consequence of the voting process: each decision, that is, vote, that the group makes is implicitly or explicitly prioritizing some goals over others. That’s it. A vote is nothing more than a decision making tool. That decision will have consequences of course, but so does not making any decision. Some voting systems allow for a non-decision, or “none of the above,” choice, which can force the group to go back and reevaluate the options. That can work well in situations where the decision is low urgency and the cost of redoing the process is low. Other systems, such as US Presidential elections, are designed to force a decision within a specific time frame. The implicit assumption is that it’s better to make some decision than no decision: no matter what the outcome, someone will become president.

In a small group, members might refuse to support any of the available options. If enough members make clear their unwillingness to support any option, this can force the group to reevaluate its decision space. However, this really does depend on how many group members feel this way: if it’s a small enough minority, the group will go ahead anyway. Holdouts who then refuse to support the outcome will often leave the group if they disagree deeply enough, or may be forced out by the rest of the group.

In a large group, it’s much easier to avoid supporting any of the available choices. This is particularly true with a secret ballot voting system: secret ballots make it easier for people to vote as they wish, but also make it easier to disengage from the moral consequences of a bad group decision. The larger the group, the less any individual feels responsible for the overall outcome. Thus, a group member can vote for an unlikely outcome, write in an outcome not on the presented list, or not vote at all, and simultaneously feel like their action is disconnected from the final result. This disconnect makes it easier to not feel guilt over a group decision that hurts other people and also not feel guilt over profiting from a group decision that they might have refused to support. This is particularly true in the plurality/minority rule systems discussed earlier. Arguably, though, all members of the group share in the responsibility for the decision and subsequent actions that result from it, particularly if they are in a position to benefit from those decisions.

Ultimately, voting is a tool that enables a group to make a decision, sometimes whether or not members of the group want to make a decision at that time or whether or not they like the (available) options. Sometimes what counts is that the decision be made and the group move on. Voting is thus a very powerful tool. As with all power tools, improper use may result in injury to the social structure of the group.

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