Voting Prizes

Have you ever voted for a politician and then, once elected, they did something totally different than they promised they’d do during the campaign? It has certainly happened to me. Annoying, isn’t it?

There’s a body of research and literature on what motivates politicians to do what they do. Some people think campaign finance is a big deal, or that special interest lobbying is overly effective (to the detriment of the general public), or that we just have a bad habit of electing the people who enjoy running in campaigns (aka, Dark Triad sociopaths). Whatever the mix of problems, or what role they individually play, the fact remains that voters in modern democracies often feel like their wishes are not being respected by their “representative” government.

The main problem here is one of agency costs. The voters elect a representative to do their bidding, but once elected the politician is free to do pretty much whatever he wants. Assuming he wants to stay in office beyond one term, his only incentive is to do the bare minimum to keep getting reelected, and has no real incentive to do anything other than be slightly better than the next-worse alternative. Combined with an hen house electoral system designed by the foxes Congresscritters to make real competition for their seats as difficult as possible to materialize, and you have a recipe for 7% approval ratings.

If only there was a way to provide “pay for performance”! That should help, right?

See, I think our legislature should be more like my plumber Rick. When I have a problem, I call Rick, and when the problem is fixed (and not before) he gets paid. If he doesn’t fix it, I fire him and find another plumber (not that I’ve ever had to do that – Rick’s awesome). This, in fact, is how most of the service economy works, and it works well enough. It certainly has better approval ratings than Congress.

So how would pay-for-performance work for Congress?

Well the one thing Congresscritters really need is votes. Votes are even more important than campaign finance, since campaign finance is just a way to buy votes. If the Congressman already had a guaranteed and safe number of votes, he wouldn’t need to run a campaign at all, or even wake up early on election day.

Here’s my proposal: Prizes + Escrow.

Each citizen is given 10 vote tokens. We assume there is some technological wonder that keeps tracks of everyone’s tokens in a pseudonymous but transparent fashion and can audit the whole system in real time – maybe blockchain-based. Each of these tokens represents a vote in a future election. 

Any citizen can arbitrarily create a prize account. This account has conditions which are specified at the time the account is created and cannot be changed. The conditions are basically a request for legislation, and can be vague and general (i.e., “privatize Social Security”) or very specific (actual legislative language that must be adhered to exactly). 

(Why can’t the prize conditions be changed? Because when Bob puts his tokens in the account on Day N, changing the conditions on Day N+1 would effectively usurp Bob’s electoral intent.That’s an abuse of Bob’s rights. Any attempt to change the conditions should either be impossible or result in an immediate return of all Tokens placed in the account prior to the change)

Citizens can also contribute to each other’s prize accounts to pool their voting power, and my assumption is that many policy organizations that already exist today (such as the EFF, ACLU, or NRA) would create prize accounts with the assistance of like-minded attorneys, and then recruit their members to put votes into them. This would be the primary method by which large pools of votes would be stored. In this manner, the general interest of the greatest number of voters would be plainly evident.

Politicians who are already in office would then compete to win these votes by meeting the prize requirements as best they can. The representatives pass the law, and then the citizens who put the tokens in the pot are polled as to whether the law meets their satisfaction. Assuming it is, the votes are released and go into a special “vote escrow account” (VEA). The VEA is simply a tally of how many votes the legislator has unlocked. If the citizens vote that the law doesn’t meet the requirements the legislators can choose to nullify the law, amend the law and ask again, or keep the law as written and forgo those votes (after all, there may be multiple prize accounts at stake for any given piece of legislation).

(You’ll note that this system doesn’t have a method for electing an initial batch of legislators. That’s because most countries already have legislators. And in the odd situation where you’re forming a legislature from scratch, you could probably pick people at random out of the phonebook and still beat 7% approval)

Once a legislator has won enough votes by passing requested legislation, he’s guaranteed to win the next election. No need to run a campaign or raise money. And no need to listen to lobbyists either, since they can’t tell him anything that the public prize accounts don’t say more clearly and loudly. He’s sitting pretty, although it’s of course possible to win more votes and bank them for future elections if there’s prizes to be had. Let the people have the laws they want.

Once tokens are won by a legislator the vote tally is registered in his VEA, but the token then returns to the citizen. He can place it in another prize account if he wants, incentivizing his next-highest priority.

The above system doesn’t specify whether each legislator gets the full value of the tokens inside the account, or if the tokens are divided among all the legislators who voted for it. That’s on purpose. I’m not trying to discuss the nitty-gritty math details here, but rather the concept or prizes and escrow. I’m also going to ignore the question of how many votes a legislator needs to get re-elected. Obviously you’d want to balance that between “enough he has to work for it” and “not so much that it’s discouraging”.

And here’s one last detail, and it’s important. When a citizen places his tokens into a prize account, he specifies whether it’s positive or negative. A positive value represents a vote, and a negative value represents an anti-vote. The anti-vote cancels out someone else’s vote for that legislation. In this manner, the “silent majority” has a way of preserving the status quo if that’s their preference.

7 thoughts on “Voting Prizes

    1. The States that have done that have had a very poor record. The problem is that referenda have specific language and impose inflexible requirements. California for instance has referenda in place that both mandate spending and cap taxes. It’s nuts.

      General prizes like “privatize social security” or “reduce copyright terms” allows for the politicians to hash out the details and draft the language more carefully. (Of course, in the current news cycle about speak-o’s and such “drafting carefully” is more a punchline than anything. But it’s at least possible)

      Note that this would only be one sort of reform I would enact were I King for the Day. I’d also switch over Congress’ compensation package to be entirely paid in RGPD per capita options. Like stock options for executives, but based off of GDP growth per capita. If someone could earn a 20 year annuity that only paid out when the economy grew, that would give them a longer term perspective than the current election cycle.

      1. I’m not endorsing referenda, I’m just saying they effectively do the same thing as your proposal. As you said, the language of the prize can be made as vague or specific as you like. If the incumbent can only get re elected by fulfilling various prizes, it works effectively as a referenda system. Likewise with referenda you can vote no to cancel.

  1. Jessica

    Y’all remind me of the gang of pipe- and cigar- smoking Philosophy and Poli Sci majors who would hang around near the School of Business at my alma mater. Interesting chaps. They were a bit condescending toward me, though. Possibly with good reason. This is not my field of expertise and the jargon goes right over my head. I do, however, enjoy the food for thought in this and other posts. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Oh, yes! I worried it might be unclear; I’m sorry. You remind me of the “interesting chaps” portion, not the condescending portion.

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