The Voters’ Curses: Why we need goldilocks voters

The forthcoming article “The Voters’ Curses: Why we need goldilocks voters” by Carlo Prato and Stephane Wolton is summarized by the authors here:

It is commonly accepted that a more engaged electorate would improve the performance of the democratic system. Indeed, voters who care significantly about politics should possess better information and consequently, encourage politicians to choose policies more in line with their interest. In `The Voters’ Curses: Why We Need Goldilocks Voters’, we find that this intuition is correct as long as politicians’ behavior is constant in voters’ level of political engagement. However, we also demonstrate that this logic is fundamentally flawed because politicians strategically respond to changes in voters’ political engagement. As a result of politicians’ behavior, high interest in politics can be associated with a poor performance of the democratic process.

We analyze a game-theoretic model of elections which distinguish between voters’ interest in politics (how much they care about politics) and attention to politics (how much they listen to candidates). Building on Downs’ (1957) notion of rational ignorance, we suppose that voters need to pay costly attention to the electoral campaign to learn candidates’ platforms.

In line with existing theory, we find that when voters’ interest is low, candidates have little incentive to choose policies beneficial to voters and the democratic system performs poorly. We term this phenomenon `the curse of the uninterested voter’. Our theory also predicts a low performance of the democratic system when voters’ interest is very high. High interest can create the wrong incentives for the wrong kind of candidates: Candidates would propose the voters’ preferred policy even when they do not have the necessary competence to successfully implement it. We term this phenomenon `the curse of the interested voter.’ Like Goldilocks who “likes her porridge not too cold, not too hot, likes it just right,” the best policy outcomes occur when voters care about politics not too little and not too much.

A direct implication of our results is that policy intervention meant to decrease voters’ cost of acquiring political information (e.g., subsidy for public service broadcasting) can have negative unintended consequences. A lower cost of attention would increase the electoral reward from proposing voters’ preferred policy augmenting the risk that incompetent candidates promise change despite being unable to successfully carry it out.

A slightly more subtle implication regards the relationship between interest and attention. Previous empirical studies have conflated these two notions of engagement; our paper shows the importance of distinguishing between them. When voters’ interest is high, incompetent candidates imitate competent ones by proposing the same type of policies. Voters become skeptical about learning candidates’ platforms since they do not know whether they will benefit from the policy announced by the candidate. Consequently, they pay little attention to the campaign despite a high interest in politics.

Our paper, therefore, shows that the well-documented fact that voters’ political knowledge is limited is not necessarily the result of voters’ caring little about politics, it can also be caused by candidates’ strategic behavior.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.