Economics serving society

Referenda under Oath - Are voters more sincere when they decide under oath ?

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Nicolas Jacquemet, Alexander James, Stéphane Luchini and Jason F. Shogren

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A great number of collective decisions are made via a vote, designed to allow each person to express his or her opinion and, on that basis, to make the decision that is most faithful to the preferences of the collective. This principle is only of value, however, if the votes cast correspond to the actual preferences of the voters.

In this article, Nicolas Jacquemet, Stéphane Luchini, Alexander James and Jason Shogren study this question through a so-called controlled experiment in which the respondents declare their views through a vote on the opportunity of funding a public good (concretely in this case, a donation to he World Wildlife Fund, WWF). The decision to fund is taken by a simple majority.
First, the study compares two diametrically opposed situations. In the first situation, the votes are consultative: participants are asked how they would vote if a donation to WWF were already in place. This setting is characteristic of an opinion poll in which the opinions have no effect. Conversely, in the second scenario, the vote is followed by putting the public decision into action, and obliges all respondents to contribute to the donation should the referendum proposal be adopted. This latter condition allows us to observe voter preferences in actual conditions, since the vote is not only declarative, based on intentions, but also has financial implications for each of the voters. Not surprisingly, comparison of the two scenarios reveals a significant divergence between them: on average, 61 per cent of voters are in favour of the donation in the first situation, while only 22 per cent of voters declare themselves in favour of it when the policy will be applied after the vote is taken. The authors’ interpretation of these results is that the financial consequences the voters face in the second situation constitute an “engagement mechanism”: voters are led to make decisions that are more reliable and represent a more accurate reflection of their real preferences. In order to improve the sincerity of voters in the situations that do not involve, for example, financial implications, the authors propose to make use of a non-monetary engagement mechanism: an oath by which voters solemnly declare to tell the truth.
Second, the authors carry out the same experiment as in the first step, replacing the financial implication with this oath. They show that the oath has a significant effect on the sincerity of the votes of the participants who are the most subject to the variations described above. Under oath, the votes expressed in the absence of a financial stake are thus on average much closer to “sincere” votes – 45 per cent of voters, or half the number than without an oath, declare themselves this time to be in favour of the donation. The oath thus leads voters to take into account more seriously the consequences of their vote, which makes the result of the consultative vote much more informative.

Original title of the article : “SReferenda under Oath”
Forthcoming : Environmental and Resource Economics, pp 1-26 - First online : 08 April 2016
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