Ethics, Experiments, and Election Administration

Nothing gets political scientists as excited as elections.  In this previous post, I discussed the Montana field experiment controversy. In that post, I pointed out that the ethics of field experiments in elections—e.g., in which some people are given additional information and others are not—are complicated.  In the majority of the post, I was attempting to respond to claims by some that ethical field experiments must have no effect on the “outcome.”[1]

Moving back from us egg-heads and our science, it dawned on me that the notion of an intervention (or treatment) is quite broad.  In particular, any change in electoral institutions—such as early voting, voter ID requirements, or partisan/non-partisan elections, to name a few—is, setting intentions aside, equivalent to a field experiment.[2]  By considering this analogy in just a bit more detail, I hope to make clear the point of my original post, which was that

In the end, the ethical design of field experiments requires making trade-offs between at least two desiderata:

1. The value of the information to be learned and
2. The invasiveness of the intervention.

Whenever one makes trade-offs, one is engaging in the aggregation of two or more goals or criteria […] and thus requires thinking in theoretical terms before running the experiment.  One should have taken the time to think about both the likely immediate effects of the experiment and also what will be affected by the information that is learned from the results.

Along these lines, consider the question of whether one should institute early voting.  There are two trade-offs to consider.  On the “pro” side, early voting can enhance/broaden participation.  On the “con” side, early voting can allow people to cast less-than-perfectly informed votes, because they vote before the election campaign is over.[3]

So, is early voting ethical?  Well, the (strong and/or “straw man-ized”) arguments about the ethics of field experiments would imply that this experiment/intervention is ethical only if it doesn’t affect the outcome of the election.   It is nonsense to claim that we are collectively certain that early voting has no effect on election outcomes.[4]

So, then, the question would be whether the good (increased participation) “outweighs” the bad (uninformed voting).  If there are any voters who would have voted on election day, but vote early and then regret that they can’t vote on election day, this trade-off is contestable—it depends on (1) how important participation is to you and (2) how costly mistaken/uninformed voting is to youI’ll submit that these two weights are not universally shared. 

To be clear, I favor early voting.  But that’s because I think participation is per se valuable, and most individuals’ votes are not pivotal in most elections.  That is, I think that the second dimension—uninformed voting—doesn’t affect election outcomes very often and making participation less costly is a good thing for more general social outcomes beyond elections.

But you see, that evaluation—the conclusion that early voting is ethical—is based not only on my own values, but also on an explicit, non-trivial calculation.  In thinking about the Montana experiment and similar field experiments, my point is this: if you want to be ethical, you need to do some theorizing when designing your experiment. Because an experimental manipulation of an election is—in practice—equivalent to a “reform” of election administration.[5]

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] The notion of what exactly is an outcome is unclear, but it is okay for this post to just consider the question of “who won the election?”

[2] I say set intentions aside, because critics of my position (see Paul Gronke’s post, for example, which quotes a casual (and accurate) footnote from my previous post.)

[3] I am not an expert in all forms of early voting.  However, it is the case that in some states at least (Texas, for example), once you’ve voted early, you can’t cancel the vote.

[4] See, I didn’t even get into the mess that follows when one tries to figure out what an ethical democratic/collective norm would be, which this necessarily must be, since it is concerning collective outcomes.  Strong non-interference arguments in this context would nearly immediately imply that we should all follow Rousseau’s suggestion and each go figure out the common will on our own.

[5] You can easily port this argument over to the arguments about voter ID laws, where the trade-offs are between participation and voter fraud.