Politics & Elections May 5, 2014

Hap­py Vot­ers or Hap­py Outcomes?

In cor­po­ra­tions, acad­e­mia, and the papal con­clave, trans­par­ent vot­ing and vot­er pri­va­cy inter­act in sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex ways.

Yevgenia Nayberg​

Based on the research of

Ronen Gradwohl

In the present era of extreme par­ti­san­ship, Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers in search of polit­i­cal advan­tage fre­quent­ly force votes on con­tro­ver­sial issues that can embar­rass oppo­si­tion mem­bers because they go counter to the views of most of their constituents. 

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Since the vote of every mem­ber of Con­gress is record­ed pub­licly, indi­vid­ual leg­is­la­tors can­not pre­vent the peo­ple in their dis­tricts from learn­ing how they vote on such sen­si­tive mat­ters. Offi­cials in oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, such as cor­po­rate boards, aca­d­e­m­ic fac­ul­ty meet­ings, and even the Roman Catholic Church’s con­clave to elect a Pope, have more choice in the mat­ter of vot­ing. They can — and often do — choose to keep their votes secret.

The ten­sion between open­ness and pri­va­cy has attract­ed the atten­tion of Ronen Grad­wohl, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at Kel­logg. An expert on pri­va­cy issues and their effect on strate­gic inter­ac­tions, he has devel­oped a mod­el that exam­ines the rela­tion­ship between vot­ing trans­paren­cy and vot­ers’ pri­va­cy. The issue is that of the qual­i­ty of vot­ers’ deci­sions ver­sus the vot­ers’ wel­fare,” he says. If there weren’t pri­va­cy con­cerns, there would be no ten­sion between the two.”

His mod­el, based on game the­o­ry, illu­mi­nates the com­plex­i­ty of the rela­tion­ships between open­ness, pri­va­cy, and effec­tive deci­sion mak­ing. Fig­ur­ing out what infor­ma­tion to pub­li­cize about vot­ing can have unex­pect­ed effects on behav­ior,” Grad­wohl explains. The mod­el reveals one par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing result. If indi­vid­u­als want to pre­serve their pri­va­cy,” he says, releas­ing less infor­ma­tion about their votes isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter.” Indeed, he con­tin­ues, restrict­ing the amount of infor­ma­tion dis­closed about the votes may actu­al­ly be harm­ful.” Those find­ings have prac­ti­cal impor­tance for orga­ni­za­tions decid­ing what form of vot­ing to adopt.

Rea­sons for Secre­cy

Indi­vid­u­als have sev­er­al rea­sons for wish­ing to main­tain the secre­cy of their votes. Elect­ed gov­ern­ment offi­cials might be dis­in­clined to vote pub­licly against their con­stituents’ wish­es, what­ev­er the mer­its of the issue at hand. Cor­po­rate board mem­bers might wor­ry about tak­ing a stance unpop­u­lar with their com­pa­nies’ CEOs and share­hold­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, untenured fac­ul­ty mem­bers may hes­i­tate to let depart­ment chairs, deans, and oth­ers who can influ­ence their prospects for pro­fes­sion­al advance­ment know that they vot­ed against their aca­d­e­m­ic superiors.

In some sit­u­a­tions, indi­vid­u­als might not want to be seen as vot­ing in any par­tic­u­lar way. An elect­ed offi­cial may have het­ero­ge­neous con­stituents, and regard­less of the vote he casts he risks alien­at­ing some of them,” Grad­wohl writes. A board mem­ber would like to pre­vent anger­ing any share­hold­er, regard­less of the shareholder’s posi­tion on the issue. And a fac­ul­ty mem­ber would not like to be seen as vot­ing against the depart­ment chair, but may not know how the depart­ment chair is vot­ing. Such com­mit­tee mem­bers val­ue pri­va­cy, and pre­fer that the votes they cast remain secret.”

What­ev­er their cir­cum­stances, com­mit­tee mem­bers can vote in one of two ways. Sin­cere vot­ing means vot­ing for the out­come the mem­ber con­sid­ers most like­ly to be opti­mal based on the facts at hand — in effect, the cor­rect out­come” that best serves the inter­ests of soci­ety or the orga­ni­za­tion. In strate­gic vot­ing, by con­trast, the indi­vid­ual takes into account the poten­tial reac­tion to his or her vote by fel­low com­mit­tee mem­bers and influ­en­tial out­siders: If he votes yes,” what hap­pens to him?

Three Ways to Vote

It is a con­cern for pri­va­cy that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Gradwohl’s mod­el from pre­vi­ous research on vot­ing pro­ce­dures, which has focused pre­dom­i­nant­ly on the qual­i­ty of vot­ers’ deci­sions. The mod­el involves just two vot­ers, along with an out­side observ­er, but Grad­wohl denies that the lack of num­bers makes it over­ly sim­plis­tic. It makes the mod­el more tractable,” he says. And the kind of intu­ition that goes into solv­ing the mod­el holds for more than two voters.”

Indi­vid­u­als typ­i­cal­ly vote sin­cere­ly in open and secret vot­ing because there is lit­tle rea­son not to.

Grad­wohl applies the mod­el to three spe­cif­ic types of vot­ing pro­ce­dure. In open vot­ing, typ­i­fied by local gov­ern­ments in states with sun­shine laws, such as Flori­da, or open meet­ings acts, such as Min­neso­ta, pub­licly avail­able min­utes of meet­ings include the votes of indi­vid­ual mem­bers. In anony­mous vot­ing, fea­tured in sev­er­al cor­po­rate board meet­ings and almost all fac­ul­ty meet­ings, only the tal­ly of votes is pub­lished; no record of indi­vid­u­als’ votes is includ­ed. And in secret vot­ing, illus­trat­ed by the deci­sions of Switzerland’s Fed­er­al Coun­cil, the exec­u­tive branch of the Alpine country’s gov­ern­ment, only the out­come of each vote is announced, with­out any indi­ca­tion of the tal­ly. (A more famil­iar elec­toral pro­ce­dure — in Papal con­claves — mix­es two types of vot­ing. For the vot­ers them­selves, the process is anony­mous: they know the tal­ly but not which car­di­nals vot­ed for whom. To the out­side world, how­ev­er, the process is entire­ly secret: the Vat­i­can announces only the result of the vote — he indi­vid­ual cho­sen as the new Pope.)

Match­ing Vot­ing Styles to Goals

So what is the best vot­ing process for a giv­en sit­u­a­tion? The choice of which vot­ing pro­ce­dure to go for will depend on what the vot­ing pro­ce­dures aim to achieve,” Grad­wohl explains. If the goal is to get the right out­come, you would go for open or secret vot­ing; anony­mous bal­lots have the worst chance of get­ting the right out­come. But if you’re con­cerned about mak­ing the vot­ers hap­py, anony­mous vot­ing could be bet­ter than secret voting.” 

Why? Indi­vid­u­als typ­i­cal­ly vote sin­cere­ly in open and secret vot­ing because there is lit­tle rea­son not to. Votes will either be revealed (in open vot­ing), or the entire tal­ly be kept secret (in the lat­ter). Why not vote for the out­come you tru­ly want and are will­ing to stand behind? Anony­mous vot­ing, by con­trast, gives indi­vid­u­als the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote strate­gi­cal­ly. By vot­ing occa­sion­al­ly for a worse out­come, they can inject more uncer­tain­ty into the tal­ly, thus pro­tect­ing their pri­va­cy while not risk­ing too much in terms of obtain­ing the cor­rect out­come in the vote.

On the oth­er hand, secret vot­ing has its own val­ue. In set­tings in which the prob­a­bil­i­ty of cor­rect­ness is crit­i­cal, but the com­mit­tee mem­bers’ wel­fare is also impor­tant,” Grad­wohl writes, secret vot­ing might be the opti­mal pro­ce­dure. It often per­forms just as well as open vot­ing in terms of cor­rect­ness, and addi­tion­al­ly pro­vides high­er wel­fare.” In oth­er words, secret vot­ing gives indi­vid­u­als the free­dom to vote for the cor­rect out­come because only a win­ner is announced; there is no way for oth­ers to deter­mine who or how many vot­ers went with the win­ning deci­sion. Secret vot­ing is also ide­al when vot­ers wish to present a unit­ed front.

Those con­clu­sions pro­vide a ready guide for indi­vid­u­als wish­ing to deter­mine the choice of vot­ing pro­ce­dure for boards, com­mit­tees, and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. Grad­wohl empha­sizes that they apply main­ly to sit­u­a­tions that involve rel­a­tive­ly small num­bers of vot­ers. His mod­el reveals lit­tle about a pop­u­lace vot­ing for nation­al, state, and local leg­is­la­tures. In such cas­es, what you can learn about a par­tic­u­lar vot­er from the tal­ly is almost noth­ing,” he explains. The pri­va­cy con­cern is so small as to have essen­tial­ly no effect.”

And the take-away mes­sage from the study: When indi­vid­u­als or firms care not just about par­tic­u­lar out­comes but about how the votes cast by indi­vid­u­als are per­ceived by oth­ers,” Grad­wohl sum­ma­rizes, they might have to think twice about what sort of infor­ma­tion to publicize.”

Featured Faculty

Ronen Gradwohl

Assistant Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

About the Writer

Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Mass.

About the Research

Gradwohl, Ronen. 2014 “Voting in the Limelight.” Working Paper. January.

Read the original

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