Gaming Democracy

by Froolow 5 min read30th Jul 201427 comments


I live in the UK, which has a very similar voting structure to the US for the purposes of this article. Nevertheless, it may differ on the details, for which I am sorry. I also use a couple of real-life political examples which I hope are uncontroversial enough not to break the unofficial rules here. If they are not, I can change them, because this is a discussion of gaming democracy by exploiting swing seats to push rationalist causes.

Cory Doctrow writes in the Guardian about using Kickstarter-like thresholds to encourage voting for minority parties:

He points out that nobody votes for minority parties because nobody else votes for them; if you waste your vote on Yellow then it is one fewer vote that might stop the hated Blue candidate getting in by voting for the not-quite-so-bad Green. He argues that you could use the internet to inform people when some pre-set threshold had been triggered with respect to voting for a minor party and thus encourage them to get out and vote. So for example if the margin of victory was 8000 votes and 9000 people agreed with the statement, “If more than 8000 people agree to this statement, then I will go to the polls on election day and vote for the minority Yellow party”, the minority Yellow party would win power even though none of the original 9000 participants would have voted for Yellow without the information-coordinating properties of the internet.

I’m not completely sure of the argument, but I looked into some of the numbers myself. There are 23 UK seats (roughly equivalent to Congressional Districts for US readers) with a margin of 500 votes or fewer. So to hold the balance of power in these seats you need to find either 500 non-voters who would be prepared to vote the way you tell them, or 250 voters with the same caveats (voters are worth twice as much as non-voters to the aspiring seat-swinger, since a vote taken from the Blues lowers the margin by one, and a vote given to the Greens lowers the margin by one, and every voter is entitled to both take a vote away from the party they are currently voting for and award a vote to any party of their choice). I’ll call the number of votes required to swing a seat the ‘effective voter’ count, which allows for the fact that some voters count for two.

It doesn’t sound impossible to me to reach the effective voter count for some swing constituencies, given that often even extremely obvious parody parties can often win back their deposit (500 actual votes, not even ‘effective votes’).

Doctrow wants to use the information co-ordination system to help minority parties reach a wider audience. I think it could be used in a much more active way to force policy promises on uncontroversial but low-status issues from potential future MPs. Let me take as an example ‘Research funding for transhuman causes’. Most people don’t know what transhumanism is, and most people who do know what it is don’t care. Most people who know what it is and care are basically in support of research into transhuman augmentations, but would definitely rank issues like the economy or defence as more important. There is a small constituency of people who oppose transhumanism outright, but they are not single issue voters either by any means (I imagine opposing transhumanism is strongly correlated with a ‘traditional religious value’ cluster which includes opposing abortion, gay marriage and immigration). Politicians could therefore (almost) costlessly support a small amount of research funding for transhuman, which would almost certainly be a sensible move when averaged across the whole country (either you discover something cool, in which case your population is made better off and your army more powerful or you don’t, and in the worst case you get a decent multiplier effect to the economy that comes from employing a load of material scientists and bioengineers). However we know that they won’t do this because while the benefits to the country might be great, the minor cost of supporting a low-status (‘weird’) project is borne entirely by the individual politician. What I mean by this is that the politician will probably not lose any votes by publically supporting transhumanism, but will lose status among their peers and will want to avoid this. There’s also a small risk of losing votes by supporting transhuman causes from the ‘traditional value’ cluster and no obvious demographic with whom supporting transhuman causes gains votes.

This indicates to me that if enough pro-transhumans successfully co-ordinated their action, they could bargain with the politicians standing for office. Let us say there are unequivocally enough transhumans to meet the effective voter threshold for a particular constituency. One person could go round each transhuman (maybe on that city’s subreddit) and get them to agree in principle to vote for whichever candidate will agree to always vote ‘Yes’ on research funding for transhuman causes, up to a maximum of £1bn. Each transhuman might have a weak preference for Blues vs Greens or vice versa, but the appeal is made to their sense of logic; each Blue vote is cancelled out by each Green vote, but each ‘Transhuman’ vote is a step closer to getting transhumanism properly funded, and transhumanism is more important than any marginal policy difference between the two parties. You then go to each candidate and present the evidence that the ‘transhuman’ block has the power to swing the election and is well co-ordinated enough to vote as a bloc on election day. If both candidates agree that they will vote ‘Yes’ on the bills you decided on, then send round an electronic message saying – essentially – “Vote your conscience”. If one candidate says ‘Yes’ and the other ‘No’ send round a message saying “Vote Blue” (or Green). If both candidates say ‘no’ send a message saying “Vote for the Transhuman Party (which is me)” in the hope that you can demonstrate you really did hold the balance of power, to increase the weight of your negotiation in the future.

If the candidate then goes back on their word, you slash and burn the constituency and make sure that no matter what the next candidate from that party promises, they lose. Also ensure that if that candidate ever stands in a marginal seat again, they lose (effectively ending their political career). This gives a strong incentive for MPs to vote the way they promised, and for parties to allow them to vote the way they promised.

Incidentally my preferred promise to extract from the candidates (and I don’t think this works in America) is to bring a bill with a particular wording if they win a Private Members’ Ballot (a system whereby junior members enter a lottery to see whose idea for a bill gets a ‘reading’ in the House of Commons, and hence a chance of becoming a law). For example, “This house would fund £1bn worth of transhumanism basic research over the next four years”. This is because it forces MPs to take a position on an issue they otherwise would not want to touch (because it is low-status) and one way out of this bind is to pretend the issue was high-status all along, which would be a good outcome for transhumanism as it means people might start funding it without the complicated information-coordination game I describe above.

One issue with this is that some groups – for example; Eurosceptics – are happy to single issue vote already, and there are far more Eurosceptics than there are rationalists in the UK. A US equivalent – as far as I understand – might be gun rights activists; they will vote for whatever party deregulates guns furthest, regardless of any other policies they might have and they are very numerous. This could be a problem, since a more numerous coalition will always beat a less numerous coalition at playing this information coordination game.

The first response is that it might actually be OK if this occurs. Being a Eurosceptic in no way implies a particular position on transhuman issues, so a politician could agree to the demands of the Eurosceptic bloc and transhuman bloc without issue. The numbers problem only occurs if a particular position automatically implies a position on another issue, so if there was a large single-issue anti-transhuman voting bloc, and there isn’t. There is a small problem if someone is both a Eurosceptic and a transhuman, since you can only categorically agree to vote the way one bloc tells you, but this is a personal issue where you have to decide which issue is more important and not a problem with the system as it stands.

The second response is that you are underestimating the difficulty of co-ordinating a vote in this way. For example, Eurosceptics – as a rule – will want to vote for the minority UKIP party to signal their affiliation with Eurosceptic issues. No matter what position the candidates agree to on Europe, UKIP will always be more extreme on European issues, since the candidate can only agree to sufficiently mainstream policies that the vote-cost of agreeing to the policy publically is less than the vote-gain of gaining the Eurosceptic bloc. Therefore there will be considerable temptation to defect and vote UKIP in the event of successfully coordinating a policy pledge from a candidate since the voter has a strong preference for UKIP over any other party. Transhumans – it is hypothesised – have a stronger preference for marginal gains in transhuman funding over any policy difference between the two major parties and so getting them to ‘hold their nose’ and vote for a candidate they would otherwise not want to is easier.

It is not just transhumanism that this vote-bloc scheme might work for, but transhumanism is certainly a good example. In my mind you could co-ordinate any issue where the proposed voting bloc is:

  1. Intelligent enough to understand why voting for a candidate you don’t like might result in outcomes you do like
  2. Sufficiently politically unaffiliated that voting for a party they disapprove of is a realistic prospect (hence I’m picking issues young people care about, since they typically don’t vote)
  3. Sufficiently internet-savvy that coordinating by email / reddit is a realistic prospect.
  4. Unopposed by any similar-sized or larger group which fits the above three criteria.
  5. Cares more about this particular issue than any other issue which fits the above four criteria

Some other good examples of this might be opposing homeopathy on the NHS, encouraging Effective Altruism in government foreign aid, spending a small portion of the Defence budget on FAI and so on.

Are there any glaring flaws I’ve missed?