Thursday, March 25

Faulty political incentives

A storm is brewing at my alma mater, where student union politicians may override the decision of an electoral officer and boot two candidates who won election to next year's board of directors.

The prospect of partisan politicians disqualifying another party's politicians is creating quite a controversy, and rightly so. But it shouldn't be a big surprise, given the rules in place for dealing with electoral complaints:

  • Anyone can lodge a complaint against a candidate.
  • The electoral officer, who is independent and in charge of running the elections, rules on the complaint. (If the rules were sensible, they'd end here. The following two rules make the elections a bit of a farce).
  • Anyone can appeal the electoral officer's decision to an "electoral committee," which is made up of outgoing members of the board of directors that the candidates are trying to be elected to.
  • The committee can then refer the decision to the entire board of directors, who can vote whether or not to disqualify a candidate.
We've been studying public choice theory ad nauseam in my public economics class, and a common theme among virtually every paper we've read is that politicians base their actions on how it will affect their chances of re-election. The happier papers tend to assume that re-election keeps the politicians in line, while the darker papers suggest re-election leads politicians to play favourites and do counterproductive things to buy votes. Either way, politicians respond to the threat of re-election.

But at the University of Victoria, the politicians who are on the electoral committee will not face re-election (they're all graduating or have chosen not to run again). If they did, they probably would avoid overruling an independent electoral officer and would refrain from disqualifying political opponents, because it'd likely cause outrage and limit their chances of re-election. But because they're not facing re-election, the incentive to behave well in order to gain re-election doesn't apply. Instead, if you believe politics provides an incentive to be loyal to one's own party, then it's quite predictable that outgoing members of a board would attempt to toss out candidates from an opposing party.

The situation shows that there's a reason why "independent" is often tossed around with the word "free" when describing legitimate elections. But moreover, it shows what can happen when institutional incentives are poorly designed, and what can happen if politicians don't face the prospect of re-election. 

It makes me wonder if holding more frequent elections, limiting term limits, or creating a salary structure that rewards politicians who successfully seek re-election would be beneficial for other government bodies. The University of Victoria student union, however, needs to start with the basics by making their elections independent.