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"Foot Voting" Coordination Efforts

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Metaculus Journal

In 1981, Ronald Reagan enjoined Americans to vote with their feet:

The built-in guarantee of freedom is our federalism that makes us so unique, and that is the right of the citizen to vote with his feet. If a State is badly managed, the people will either do one of two things: They will either use their power at the polls to redress that, or they'll go someplace else.

However, the path to reform through foot voting has many barriers: find a new job, switch healthcare insurance, secure a new house or rental, sell immovable assets, move belongings, leave family and friends, find new schools. Further, any one move does not necessarily improve the marginal utility of a single vote.

The potential for coordination of such foot voting is largely unexplored. Note that remote work markedly increased during the pandemic, and a substantial subset of Americans are experiencing newfound mobility. This, coupled with urban housing shortages and potential healthcare reforms at the federal level, may catalyze increased internal migration in the country. I expect that increasingly, a significant number of citizens will make relocation decisions through a political lens, grouping together to effect political change. Would you move somewhere else if you thought your vote could actually make a difference?

In this fortified essay I’ll explore the history of US foot voting, examine a few instances where voters coordinated, and generate predictions on a set of factors that could encourage more coordinated foot voting moving forward.

A very brief history of foot voting

America has a rich history of migration and expansion that lasted until the middle of the 20th century. It's hard to understate the transformational nature of Manifest Destiny and the movement of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. These migrations were a form of foot voting, with Americans seeking greener pastures. 

The Kansas Territory's transition to statehood from 1854-1861 provides an early, contentious example of possible coordinated foot voting. Bleeding Kansas or the “Border War” was the name given to a series of violent confrontations from this period. Pro- and anti-slavery supporters were encouraged by their respective parties to cross the Missouri-Kansas border to vote in influential elections. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 decreed that a popular vote would determine the status of slavery in the state. After intensive legal and illegal foot voting, a congressional committee found an election to be fraudulent, major cities like Lawrence were ransacked, and John Brown led a bloody rebellion. Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861.

Eventually, American states adopted secret balloting and vote-tampering laws were strengthened. The Homestead Acts established permanent populations in the West, tempering the influence of additional incoming migrants. In the 19th and 20th centuries, foot voting continued, with the city-swelling, demographic-shifting Great Migration of African Americans moving to northern cities for industrial jobs, and notable coordination during the Mormons’ mass exodus to Utah.  

Modern coordination attempts

Modern Americans tend to choose where to live (and therefore vote) based on family, healthcare, education and job opportunities—though it’s true that some populations have greater flexibility in where they cast their vote, and so can place greater weight on politics. (For instance, most university students can vote in their university town or at their family homes.) Even if the majority of Americans consider factors other than voting when selecting where to move, there have been two recent, noteworthy instances of foot voting coordination.

In 2001, the Free State Project (FSP) attempted to solve the voter coordination problem. The result is the most public effort to coordinate foot voting in recent American history. FSP is an organization that encourages Americans of any political background to move to New Hampshire, a state with a strong libertarian foundation. The state is also small enough for an influx of residents to impact politics. Participants were asked to sign a statement of intent to move to New Hampshire within five years of reaching 20,000 signatories. In 2016, the threshold was met. There were almost 2,000 early movers, and by 2021 over 5,000 of the original signees had purportedly moved to NH, with 17 state representatives self-identifying as Free Staters in the 2017-2018 session. Note that FSP asserts that it no longer actively aims for a specific number of voters to move. Regardless, this is both impressive and evidence that this kind of coordination is extremely difficult. FSP legitimately changed NH politics, but only 25% of these ideologically motivated Americans found it viable to move.

In 2020, coordination of foot voting briefly entered the public conversation. During the 2020 runoff elections for two US senate seats in Georgia, several prominent figures called for coordinated foot voting. Within the state, there was immediate backlash to this idea, with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issuing a stern warning to 'illegal' voters. According to NBC News, approximately 70K new voters registered in Georgia between Nov. 4 and Dec. 7th, with 7.7 million registered voters overall. Ultimately, it's unclear how many new-to-Georgia residents voted in the runoff, but it's unlikely these added votes were particularly decisive (see margins here).

The future of coordinated foot voting

Before formulating a prediction about the future of coordinated foot voting, let’s consider a few potential variables worth considering, as well as related questions that we can find on Metaculus. 

Powerful Incentives

Immense money and power is at stake during each and every election. In 2020, approximately $14 billion was spent on elections, most of it dedicated to voter turnout and registering unregistered or undecided voters. Why spend so much? Elections can come down to just a few thousand votes. In 2020, the Virginia state house drew names out of a hat to determine party control of the legislature. The ability to move hundreds or thousands of votes is a potentially powerful technology.

If foot voting requires proper motivation, political polarization among citizens should be a leading indicator. Currently, voters are galvanized: In 2014, Pew's Political Polarization in the American Public survey found that ideological overlap between the two major parties decreased, views on the opposing party's threat to the nation's well-being doubled, and political activism increased across the board.

In 2024, what percentage of surveyed Americans will say that conflicts between Democrats and Republicans are "very strong"? The median of my own probability distribution is 68%. I expect foot voters will be plenty motivated in 2024.

Remote Work

A subset of Americans are experiencing newfound mobility. Remote work increased markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic from 22% in 2019 to 42% in 2020. Many organizations plan to permanently institute work-from-home policies, partly due to concerns about the pandemic, partly as cost-saving measures, partly due to growing concerns about commuting’s impact on global greenhouse gas emissions—but also because many employees now demand it. Potential healthcare reforms or universal basic income policies at the federal level could further detach citizens from specific locales and decrease friction for citizens to move.

I believe the pandemic is a turning point for remote work, and that some mandatory in-person jobs will be remote by 2030. However, this number hovered around 21% for a decade, and some regression towards the mean is likely. I project that 30% of workers will work at home on an average day by 2030. My prediction about increased coordinated foot voting doesn't necessarily rely on large numbers of remote workers, but an increase here makes it more likely.

Moving Pains

Many Americans are now free to live and work in their preferred locale. And yet, internal migration is at historic lows. A subset of Americans moved due to financial stress. Culturally, we see signs of normalization. “Nomadland” depicted a growing cohort of itinerant Americans moving seasonally to find work. #vanlife is a trendy lifestyle for remote workers and YouTubers, and NomadList is a burgeoning community. Where exactly will these Americans end up? Relative affordability of homes is near all-time lows, causing many millennials to consider that they may be renting for the foreseeable future.

Current American Voting Policy

Current voting laws in American states are amenable to new residents. Citizens can only vote once per election cycle, but an American citizen can move and immediately vote in almost any jurisdiction. States with progressive voting laws allow early and day-of voting, and require little in the form of proof of residency. Even states with strict voting laws allow new residents to vote as long as they have a valid ID, utility bill, and have been living in the state for 30+ days.

Ease of Coordination

It’s difficult to coordinate something like a mass migration, but the coordination of complex processes has never been easier due to the proliferation of digital marketplaces and social media networks. Examples include retail stock buying of meme stocks, fundraising mechanisms like Kickstarter, and Kpop fans reserving rally tickets as a political prank. 

Prediction

I believe that there's a 60% chance that the question, "Will a coordinated foot voting effort intentionally move 10,000+ residents to a single American state by 2030?" will resolve positively. How did I come to this number?

  1. I established a floor based on my assessment of Free State Project's odds of hitting 10,000+. I removed early movers to get a more accurate rate of residents added each year ((5000 voters - 2000 early movers)/5 years = 600 new residents/year). With roughly 8.5 years remaining, it's entirely possible that FSP adds another 5,000 residents. Personally, I believe FSP’s momentum to be waning, and I expect the rate of new residents to drift downward. (+50%).
  2. I considered variables that indicate potential shifts in voter behavior. Incentives stand out here: Both politicians and voters have significant, increasing incentives to coordinate foot voting (+5%).
  3. Motivation helps, but behavior truly changes once it's easy. Variables like ease of coordination, current voting policy, and remote work remove friction from the equation. Moving pains are still significant, and any form of universal healthcare is unlikely to pass anytime soon. This seems like a wash to me until I consider absolute numbers. Coordination on foot voting may not be a mainstream activity, but 10,000 people moving is an achievable goal. In fact, in the 1980s the Rajneeshpuram cult reportedly moved 7,000+ people to Oregon, and even attempted to gain political influence. This gives me confidence that an organization not named FSP could take this on in the near future (+5%).

Moving Forward

Why does this matter? If foot voting can be coordinated, jurisdictions may be incentivized to further differentiate themselves to attract residents, and politicians may try to court voters outside their locale. Elections may evolve to become more chess than checkers. A successful instance of foot voting coordination could further destabilize trust in voting or could trigger states to pass stringent residency requirements. Like most technologies, coordinated foot voting is not inherently moral or immoral, but it’s worth considering how it could impact elections and governance in the future. 

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