Foot voting and political ignorance

Chapter 5 of Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance covers the interesting topic of foot voting and related issues. This is also a chapter where the author wanders significantly from the topic of political ignorance to discuss several aspects of the interplay of the structure of government and possible outcomes for the population. While many of these issues deserve discussion, they deserve more than the fragmented and passing coverage they often get here. Somin acknowledges that the book can’t address some of these topics in the depth they deserve, but it is still frustrating.

What is foot voting?

Foot voting is the heavy artillery of political expression.

To differentiate foot voting from any selection decision we have to focus on the actual change of location – the voter is physically moving to change jurisdictions.

To compare, a voter in the US might vote annually from 18 to 78 years old. There could be 10 decisions to make in each election, from choosing the President to ballot propositions. A dedicated voter might also vote in primaries. So a voter in the US might vote between 600 and 1,000 times during their lifetime. In contrast, adults in the US move only a few times during their lives. By one estimate, after 18, Americans move a little more than eight times, on average. (I think this estimate of number of moves is significantly higher than the one Somin uses in the book.)

Foot voters are exchanging all of government from some level down, even officials and policies not on the traditional ballot, with another package of officials and policies. If they meet residency requirements, they might even vote in the same year they move, getting even more power.

While the voter swaps governments, the governments gain and lose the voter. Not just the vote, but the economic contribution of that person and any associated family members.

Why foot voting?

Americans relocate for education, job opportunities, and to avoid negatives of the current locale. Historically, the size of these opportunities and negatives was larger than they are today. People moved to the frontier, blacks moved to the North to avoid lynching and murder – few of our moves today have such large motivational aspects. But to overcome the high transaction costs of moving, foot voters must be highly motivated, and that motivation level can translate into acquiring more political knowledge.

At this point, it would be great to actually have hard data to talk about. If surveys of public knowledge asked the questions “How long have you lived in your current residence?” “What are your current and previous zip codes?” we could actually compare levels of ignorance between recent arrivals and long-time residents. Somin does not present any data like this (it might not exist), so we are back in the world of making persuasive arguments rather than discussing data. For the same reason, we can’t examine whether foot voting is extra powerful, or less powerful, as the size of the move scales up or down.

Given that the evidence presented in Chapter 1 motivated the entire discussion to this point in the book, the lack of data to motivate arguments and conclusions about foot voting is strongly felt.

Advantages of foot voting

Once the ‘Bayesian prior’ of the decision to move has been established, Somin argues that several advantages compared to ballot-box voting are activated. First, the mover is acting as a ‘responsive voter’, so their information needs are low. The mover has access to ‘opinion leaders’ – their friends and family that may have already made a similar move and chosen a particular locale. They also can use information shortcuts such as party dominance in a locale to infer policy positions rather than researching each government official.

In chapter 2, we saw that even the responsive voter theory suffered from an excess of ignorance. In chapter 3, we saw that opinion leaders and information shortcuts were also inadequate to mitigate ignorance.  Somehow, somehow, the extra motivation of foot voting carries them over the line.

But does it really? These are good arguments, but without data that is all they are. There is also an unresolved tension between the idea that foot voters are highly motivated and therefore less ignorant, and the idea that whatever the level of ignorance foot voters actually have, it is irrelevant because the non-political benefits of foot voting outweigh the political considerations. The first of those is a testable hypothesis. The second is just hand waving in favor of a pet theory.

Retirement foot voting

In the current US economy, there is a special class of foot voting  Рseniors making end-of-life retirement decisions. These decisions are made with a very different set of assumptions than other moving decisions. And given the growing size of the retirement population and their willingness to also ballot-box vote, this is a significant sub-population of foot voters.

I would expect that these differences skew results of some statistics looking at all foot voters as a class, for example their preference for small government, low tax and low service jurisdictions. If we subtract out this group the remaining foot voters would be looking for a substantially larger government, accepting a larger tax burden in return for higher services.

Neither group can be ignored, but we have to be careful about accepting an argument (Foot voters are well informed, foot voters chose small government, therefore small government is ‘obviously’ better) based on summary statistics that mask significant variation.

Private government

Speaking about retirement communities allows chapter 5 to segue to the topic of private substitutions for local government. There are many variations and gradations this substitution of private for public can take.

Sometimes there is talk of local governments allowing multiple service providers to operate within the jurisdiction, on the theory that they will compete. I once lived in a town with multiple garbage collection firms. Many places have Internet service through both phone companies and cable companies.

In practice, this does not usually work out as intended. Rather than compete, the firms form a loose cartel and divide up the business. In the town I used to live in, each garbage collector kept to their own streets, so each street effectively was a monopoly. In the town I currently live in it is impossible to get fiber optic Internet services from the phone company in apartment buildings that were built with an agreement to use cable internet. The result is still a single provider, with poor service and high prices.

This is no better than a government provider, and arguably worse from the point of view of transparency. Breaking up such a cartel is a high cost to residents, so it is usually tolerated. Chapter 5 does not discuss this point.

Some local governments have retained the responsibility to provide services, but outsourced the staff to do so. Sandy Springs, Georgia is an example. In this model, the argument is that the contract negotiation process allows the government to entertain competing bids and choose the lowest cost service provider.

In the case of Sandy Springs, it is too early to tell how this will turn out. The city founders have been diligent and proactive in contract negotiation. The city benefits greatly from being carved out of Fulton County, gaining a strong tax base but somehow avoiding responsibility for pre-existing debt and pension obligations. Nice work if you can get it, but not necessarily replicatible.

Sandy Springs seems to be getting FTE (full time equivalent) services for less that $100K per FTE, which is what I spitballed personnel costs would be in that part of Georgia. The outsourced employees are in places like Ireland and India.

Of course, the government can do the same thing. I deal with a Federal shared services center in West Virginia, a low cost locale compared to DC. Outsourcing is not the magic here, contract negotiation skills by the city management is.

Condos, developer communities and sprawling retirement venues such as The Villages are a different level of substitution. In these cases, the physical infrastructure is owned by a business entity. Residents can own units, but pay fees to the property management firm for basic services.

This is a complete flip-flop from the Sandy Springs model. In Sandy Springs the city was still owning the infrastructure, but contracting for competing service providers. In the condo or retirement community the infrastructure ownership is private and the service provider is a monopoly of the developer/property manager complex of firms. Competition happens at the level of the community vying with other communities for residents willing to relocate.

Implications of private government

Even huge developments such as The Villages are not governments. In a dispute with the IRS over bonds that were issued by The Villages as tax-free ‘municipal’ bonds, the IRS found that the board running the core community was merely an arm of the property owner – a private entity.

A citizen has certain rights that they retain, no matter what. A condo resident agrees to a business contract, often including the demand to use binding arbitration. To me, this is the biggest distinction between public and private – the substitution of citizen rights for contract stipulations.

On the ‘happy path’ of a contract, residents can focus on lower costs for services, if in fact they are lower. They might feel an emotional satisfaction of being ‘in control’ that comes from choosing and owning something, and this is no small thing. However, once the relationship sours the resident can find their freedom to obtain information or influence policy is sharply constrained.

This is important in a book about ignorance and the influence of the citizen. It feels as if a law professor could have done a better job of elucidating the differences between public and private rights. Chapter 5 doesn’t do this.

Rogue government

Sometimes governments do not serve their citizens well. Large corporations and sports franchises can play off communities against each other, seeking tax abatements and other forms of corporate welfare. This rent-seeking behavior works against voters’ interests. State and local governments can also raise exclusionary barriers with licensing and zoning.

Worse, we get communities such as Ferguson, Missouri. As was brought out in detail by the Michael Brown case, the government sustained itself on a tax-farming system of traffic tickets and bench warrants and maintained a sharp racial distinction between the governing officials and the citizenry.

Ferguson would seem to be a classic foot voting opportunity. The government was preying on its citizens. Well, Ferguson is a good example of the kind of foot voting known as white flight. Even as Ferguson’s population shrank across recent decades, the black population rose. The urban poor moved into Ferguson because it was even worse elsewhere.

Here we see the limits of foot voting. As pointed out earlier, the level of opportunity represented by the frontier, by the oppression of the Jim Crow South, doesn’t exist anymore. Arguments for foot voting based on trans-national flows motivated by famine and mass murder are irrelevant to what foot voting means in contemporary America. Instead, we have foot voting based on affordable housing with no particular consideration for the politics of the community. Foot voting doesn’t work if the prior is despair, not motivation. Good government has to work even for such citizens.


Chapter 5 is probably the weakest chapter in Political Ignorance. The author seems to have taken a well researched book about data, theory, and rationality, and inserted a topic that is at best marginally relevant. This topic is obviously the pet enthusiasm of the author, so it succeeds in ‘rent seeking’ more space with less justification than the other chapters. The author relaxes his standards of argument and throws out multiple justifications for foot voting, each with little support or evidence in its favor.

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