This week’s Nicholl’s Worth page one headline reads “Will it pass?” Pauling Wilson’s article having that headline concerns a referendum before students on raising student fees by $84 per semester for a full-time student to support Nicholls athletics. Here, I do not address the normative question, ”should students pass the referendum?” but rather the more positive question asked in the headline, “will it pass?” My short answer is: “more than likely.” But my longer answer, one that I hope to prove instructive, provides the “why” to my answer.
Before going any further, I need to mention that Chris Cox and I wrote the 2004 study, “Economic Impact of Nicholls State University Athletics.” My daughter and my sister were both Intercollegiate athletes here in Louisiana. I have another son, still in high school, who is likely to be a college athlete. I have another son who has received a very helpful band and music scholarship funded, I am sure, somewhat through his university’s athletic department—so did I, my sister and my brother. In addition, I have had some excellent student athletes in my classes, and am sure I have some now. The referendum before Nicholls students is to help support just such athletes and support students. I am not writing this post against athletics. Instead, I am using the referendum as an example to make a more general point.
Sometimes among professors, there is little interaction across discipline lines. When this happens, there are interesting ideas from one area that could be applied from one area to another, but the lack of communication stifles this potential progress. However, when there is a cross-cultivation of ideas, it leads to a better understanding of those ideas and the generation of new ones. More and more, as academics discuss ideas across traditional discipline lines, rewarding insights are often discovered. For instance, the academic study of voting and elections, once the sole province of political scientists, is increasingly being studied by academicians in other areas, just as political scientists contribute to other fields.
One example of this cross-cultivation is a sub-discipline of economics and political science called “public choice” or “collective choice” or sometimes more generally as “rational choice.” Building on economists’ idea of rational decision making, the focus is on the individual’s decision to participate in the political process in one way or another, as a voter, as a candidate, or even as a campaign contributor. I should probably also confess to being a steady contributor to this area of the area of public choice, having been a student of the founders of this area, presenting and discussing conference papers, reviewing articles for publication and writing some myself, with about 4 or 5 directly related to this post.
The economist’s idea of rational decision making is that people do things that are in their best interest, as they see their best interest. This means that a person will do things that increase their benefits more than they increase their costs, when the marginal or additional benefit of an action outweighs the marginal or additional cost of the action.
When the outcome of an action is probabilistic, because it depends on other things happening, such as a person surviving another year given that a person has some surgery or your candidate winning an election given that you voted for that person, probabilities have to be introduced to determine the value of the event. For instance, suppose you win a dollar if a tossed coin comes up heads. Then the value of tossing the coin is worth about dollar times the probability of the coin coming up heads, or $0.50 per toss (assuming that the coin has a 50/50 chance of coming up heads). This probability-influenced value is called “expected value.”
Anthony Downs develops a rational-choice or economic model of the decision to vote in his 1957 book, An economic theory of democracy, using this idea of “expected value.” Downs’ model was modified by William Riker and Peter Ordeshook in a 1970 paper. The resulting model expresses the decision to participate in a vote using a simple equation:
V = PB – C + D, where V is the value of voting, P is the probability that your vote will change the outcome of the election (by either breaking or creating a tie) and C is the cost of the act of voting, and D is the voter’s value of voting because of a sense of duty or social pressure that has nothing to do with winning or losing. If your vote creates or breaks a tie, you are better off by the difference in the values of your candidate winning and your candidate losing. In most elections, even elections such as a campus election, the probability of creating or breaking a tie is usually so small that it may as well be zero, so that really matters will be the C and D terms. A person will vote if the cost of doing so is less than the value of voting due to duty or due to the social pressure of voting. Usually, for most people, both the costs of voting and the costs of not voting (D) are rather small and of similar sizes, so some vote and others do not.
Economists and political scientists have since used this framework to analyze various sorts of votes, in particular, the workings of special interest politics. Suppose a small group in the electorate stand to be the recipients of a transfer from the others, such as money collected from the entire group and given to a small subset. The small subset of voters, the recipients, stand to gain a large amount if the vote passes. If these recipients know each other, they will surely pressure each other to be sure to vote, and almost all of them cast their votes. Those who are against the transfer see that each loses a little and that it is difficult to know who else might be against it and difficult to use social pressure to get others to join your ballot protest against the transfer.
Much of the larger majority who stand to lose from the transfer do not bother voting because they rightfully see their one vote as powerless to stop the transfer. However, almost all of the members of the minority who stand to gain by the election, make it to the polls to vote for the transfer. The result is that the special interest voters get the transfer they were voting for. One way of expressing this idea is that people vote for a proposal when the benefits of that proposal are concentrated on them and the costs of the proposal are spread out. If the costs of the proposal are concentrated and the benefits are spread out, people are more likely to oppose the proposal.
Consider this, almost all of the 400 or so student athletes and support students will vote for this referendum as will many of their friends. The overall turnout is likely to be similar to what it has been in many other Nicholls student elections, very small. In the future, as in the past, I am sure that students will complain about the high level of student fees and will continue to let such referendums pass without much opposition. While I cannot predict with certainty that the referendum will pass, I am sure that the proportion of yes votes will be much higher than in general student population.
Two strategies come to mind to increase participation to reduce the power of special interest. One, restrict proposals to raise student fees to once per year that should be during the fall semester. If there are elections that draw voters more, a referendum to raise fees should be on the same ballot as other matters that draw a lot of voters. This is along the lines of the discussion in a paper I did in 1996, where we suggested that special tax elections were almost always special interest tax election and tax elections should occur in general elections, not in special elections. Two, another strategy is to reduce the cost of voting by making it much more convenient, such as holding elections electronically, using the internet, rather than to require physical presence for voting. I am happy to report that this is just what the SGA has done, allowing students to vote by going to https://acs.nicholls.edu/NSUVoting/aspxLogin.aspx.