Monday, January 14, 2013

Compulsory Voting is Less Democratic

In recent US election cycles when the low voter turnout is noted, inevitably comparisons are made to countries like Australia, and the suggestion is made that it would be better to make voting compulsory like it is here. I will argue that compulsory voting is bad and ends up being a poorer representation of who voters actually want.

Get Involved!

The typical argument you hear in the US is that most people are lazy, and so won't bother to vote unless forced to. If you make it compulsory, they will get involved in the process and the election will be a better representation of the will of the people.

As an aside, I would argue that the first thing the US should be doing is making elections on the weekend, or even better, make election day a public holiday. People might be lazy, but adding the extra hurdle of having to get away from work to vote certainly doesn't help, and probably disproportionately affects lower income people who have jobs where it is more difficult to get away for a while, even if the employer would like to allow it.

If you make voting compulsory, there is no good reason to expect that most people who are currently disinterested will suddenly care passionately about the electoral process. Some might, but most will probably remain just as disinterested and go and vote with the minimum effort and involvement possible.

Signal to Noise Ratio

The biggest problem with compulsory voting is that rather than getting a true representation of the will of the people, you are now muddying the results with a whole heap of votes from people who don't care or are poorly informed. Possibly all these extra votes would be equally distributed across all voting options (if you treat them as random chance) but studies show that this is not the case. For example, the choice at the top of the ballot will be selected more frequently than the choices below.

So adding in a bunch of forced votes will skew the results in some way, giving a less correct result.

Low Information Voters

The other major problem is that of low information voters. This is a problem in any voting system:  voters who have poor or limited knowledge of the candidates, issues, and other relevant information for making an informed decision. Typically these are voters who get most or all of their relevant knowledge from sensationalist media, such as biased television news and news opinion shows, lowbrow newspapers, talkback radio, etc. Because these media sources rely on exaggerating, omitting important facts, and often outright lying to get ratings, and because most people will not make the effort to fact check, you end up with horribly misinformed and misguided voters.

Do you really want these people voting? How can they possibly improve the quality of the result?


Then there is the problem of indifference. This can be either people who don't care which candidate is elected, or people who see all options as being equally bad, all candidates as being equally corrupt/untrustworthy. Forcing this person to vote guarantees invalid information since, from the voting perspective, that vote would have the same effect as the vote of a person who is 100% in favour of a particular candidate, yet this is clearly not a fair representation of how they feel about the candidates.

Amplifying Small Differences

Following from the previous point is the general problem that voting turns a fuzzy preference into a black and white one. Many voters are not going to be 100% in favour of one option and 0% in favour of all of the others. In reality they will see pluses and minuses in the different options. At the extreme they will be 50/50 like the indifferent case above, or maybe 51/49, just very slightly preferring one to another.

But the voting process turns all of these votes into a 100% choice for one option. If you instead had people voting on, say, a scale from 1 to 10 for all options, and then normalized so all of their preferences summed to 1, I think the election outcomes may well end up looking very different.

Optimal Representation

In the end, I don't think there is any perfect system that will capture the will of the people (and at least in part because I think the 'will of the people' is probably a poorly defined concept). However, it seems to me that the best results will occur when you maximise the number of well informed voters who have a strong opinion on the choices, and minimise the poorly informed voters or the ones that don't feel very stongly about any of the choices. Compulsory voting seems to pretty much get you as far from this ideal as you can go.

If voting is voluntary, but ideally has low barriers (like being held on a weekend as is done here in Australia), then you will get lower turnouts, but the quality of those responses will rise. The purpose of representative government is to have a smaller number of people whose job is to study the important issues and make good choices on behalf of their constituents, who don't have the time to do this. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to extend this same principle to voting, with low information voters trusting that more informed and passionate people will have a better idea of the best choices, and keeping out of it themselves. Of course we need to look out for people gaming the system, but that's a separate matter.

Tweaking Compulsory Voting

If you must have compulsory voting, then it seems important to me that there is a valid way to vote for people who are mostly indifferent to the available choices, or even more importantly, well informed voters who feel that the available choices are all equally terrible. I think it would be interesting to have some sort of 'no confidence' option on the ballot. If more than a certain percentage of votes are no confidence votes, then you would do something like a re-election, where all current candidates are forced to stand down. There are probably all sorts of issues with a system like this, but I think it would at least force candidates to listen to their constituents and try to be genuinely good choices, rather than the current situation, where they simply try to be the least bad choice.

Actually, this option would probably also be valid for non-compulsory voting systems too. As long as candidates know that one of them must be chosen, the bar stays low and they only have to suck less than the others. But if they know that they can all be thrown out, the game suddenly changes, in our favour.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Best and Worst of 2012

At the end of each year, I like to look back at the movies, games, and books that I watched/played/read over the year and try to figure out which were the standouts, either by being particularly good/memorable, or by being particularly bad. Since I don't go out of my way to consume bad media generally, my 'worst' picks are usually far from the worst possible in that category for that year, but this is still interesting, since something you expected to be good that turned out not to be, is probably more significant than something you had low hopes for from the very start.

I generally only include movies and games released during the year, but books are often older since the desire to consume them immediately is not as strong as with movies and games. I should also point out that I won't include anything that I wasn't seeing for the first time. I don't usually replay games or reread books, since the time commitment is too high, but I'll often rewatch movies I've seen before when I'm feeling lazy!


I watched 72 movies in 2012, with maybe two thirds being movies I hadn't seen before. Looking over my list, it's hard to find real standout 'must see' titles. Based on reviews, I expect that Django Unchained and Cloud Atlas would have been on my favourites list, but thanks to shitty cinema release schedules in Australia, neither one has come out over here yet.


  1. Cabin in the Woods
    This movie is the ultimate deconstruction of the teenage horror movie genre. Funny and clever, I love the fact that the initial twist is just the tip of the iceberg for how far this movie goes.
  2. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
    Not quite as good as the first one, with a bit too much emphasis on action and making Sherlock Holmes be wacky because the audiences liked that in the first one, and not enough mystery, but all the main actors are excellent and it's still a great ride.
  3. Tintin
    I've never read the comics so I can't judge it on that basis, but I found this movie to be highly entertaining and the CG was spectacular.


  1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    I've never seen the previous version or read the book, but even knowing that this is meant to be a slow movie, it didn't prepare me for just how boring I would find it. I have no problems with a thoughtful spy movie that isn't all Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible, but it still needs to be interesting, and despite some great actors, this movie just couldn't make me care about any of them.
  2. Underworld: Awakening
    I don't even remember what this one was about (beyond Kate Beckinsale in tight outfits shooting guns).
  3. God Bless America
    This was a very disappointing movie. The premise, of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to go on a rampage against all the things that piss him off in modern society, was great, but the execution was terrible. Too many times we were subjected to preaching by the main character in a blunt and non-subtle way, which completely wrecked the flow of the movie, even though I agreed with what he was saying.


I played 24 games in 2012, though two of those were large DLCs for Skyrim. If a DLC gives me at least about 5 hours of gameplay I tend to consider it to be a game in its own right, since the experience of sitting down and playing it will be much the same as playing a new game.


  1. Sleeping Dogs
    An unexpectedly excellent open world third person action title, this game has the best melee system I've come across (borrowed heavily from the Arkham games, but improved). I thought that the focus on melee over shooting would bother me since I'm not a fan of beat-em-ups, but it actually made the shooting that became more predominate in the later part of the game feel much more satisfying and earned, and kept the action feeling fresh, compared to games like GTA IV, where you're shooting guns from the start so there is nowhere to go but give you bigger guns.
  2. Hitman: Absolution
    Gorgeous graphics, quirky humour, and multiple ways to complete objectives that are actually worth doing. I will never be a hardcore stealth gamer, and I love the Hitman games because they let you play how you want, even if, for me, that means degenerating far to often into a killing spree to clear a level of enemies. I rarely replay games, but this game had me replaying missions to find all of the 'signature kills'.
  3. Risen 2
    I've been a fan of Piranha Bytes' games since Gothic 2, and Risen 2 had all of the elements that make their RPGs so enjoyable, placed in the unusual setting of pirate adventure. As usual there were plenty of annoying flaws, but like Bethesda's games, I'm a sucker for an open world game that rewards exploration with interesting characters and quests rather than just giving you loot or collectibles.


  1. Dance Central 2
    After buying a Kinect we grabbed copies of Just Dance 3 and Dance Central 2, since it's the closest Diana will ever get to taking me out dancing! The former game was fun, with lots of good songs and enjoyable choreography. Dance Central 2, however, was just wall to wall R&B and hip-hop songs, and stupid looking characters that you want to punch in the face. I'm sure some people love it, but for me it is everything I don't want in a dance title.
  2. Medal of Honor: Warfighter
    Spec Ops: The Line tried to make the player feel guilty through a clever narrative that makes you make bad decisions that get innocent people killed, and forces you to face this truth. Medal of Honor: Warfighter does a far better job of making you feel like a monster by throwing you, with far superior weapons and equipment, against desperate enemies and then patting you on the back and reassuring you what an awesome, heroic dude you are. On one mission you attack the enemy with a remote robotic vehicle equipped with a grenade launcher and a machine gun, and your enemy fights back with... a rock. That pretty much sums up the game.


I read 56 books in 2012, which was the most I've read in a single year for quite a while. Part of the secret this time was getting into audiobooks in a big way. About 35 of the books I got through were audiobooks, which I listened to mostly while exercising or driving to work. I'm definitely a big fan of audiobooks now, though I have noticed that I don't take them in as well since I'm usually listening to them without full focus.


  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
    Destined to become a classic, this book is an excellent coverage of the various cognitive biases that lead us to faulty conclusions and making bad decisions. Everyone should read at least one book about cognitive biases just to gain a little humility about the limits of human thinking abilities, and this is the single best book I've read on the topic.
  2. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
    This book is a big eye opener to just how little we can rely on published medical research to tell us how safe medications actually are. The author is a doctor who desperately wants the system improved so that drug companies are made more accountable and forced to publish all of their studies, not just the ones that make their drugs look good.
  3. Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger
    Arnold is clearly a bit narcissistic and an unfaithful husband, and this book barely touches on the less favourable parts of his past, but I can't deny that it was a fascinating read. He has done a lot of things in his life and has lots of good stories to tell. The book was energetically paced and despite being about 600 pages in length, it was hard to put down.


  1. Greenwash by Guy Pearse (no, not that one)
    I picked this up on a flight to Sydney as a light read about various ways in which certain companies pretend to be taking environmentally friendly initiatives and reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and so forth, but was disappointed to find a dull catalog of such things. The author makes very little effort to present his data in an interesting way, simply breaking things up into product category (such as Cars, Fashion, Oil, etc) and then just talks about what their advertising says, and then some facts about the reality of the company's behaviour. Over and over again. Good intentions but poor execution.


 Well, that's my list. Feel free to post comments, particularly if you disagree with any of my picks, since I always like to hear different points of view, and possibly even learn something!