New Study from Hertz Fellow Alex Siegenfeld Reveals That Nonvoting Destabilizes Democracy

November 5, 2018
Hertz Staff
Livermore, Calif

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering America’s most brilliant minds in science, mathematics and engineering, today announced a new paper detailing the causes of electoral instability. Hertz Fellow Alex Siegenfeld, a PhD student in MIT’s physics department, is the lead author. With U.S. midterm elections taking place this week, the predicted outcome of the election resembles a pendulum swinging with ever increasing force, unsure as to what side it will end up on. The new paper, “Negative Representation and Instability in Democratic Elections,” provides an explanation of why the U.S. has seen such dramatically different election outcomes over the years from Bush, to Obama, to Trump. The methodology is unique because it applies concepts and methods from physics to tackle a larger social question. Alex Siegenfeld’s collaborator, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, is the President of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI).

“Voting is an important right and responsibility of the American public,” said Robbee Baker Kosak, president, Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. “This paper calls attention to the importance of the action of voting itself, noting that low voter turnout actually drives instability in elections and can result in different election outcomes that could vary significantly from anticipated results. Alex’s research heightens the need for full voter participation in our elections. Moreover, it brings much-needed clarity on how complex political processes work, and represents an important new contribution, as to how we can go about increasing the effectiveness of public policy.”

The “Negative Representation and Instability in Democratic Elections” paper takes a bird’s eye view of an election, allowing universal properties of elections to be discovered, despite the enormous complexity of election details. As in science, when stepping back and looking at a system as a whole, the big picture behavior will often look different from the small picture behavior.

The paper reveals that elections can be unstable, with small changes in the electorate dramatically impacting the election outcome, just as small push to a boulder perched on top of a hill can dramatically change its trajectory. Low turnout, together with a polarized electorate and a two-party system, contributes to this instability. Furthermore, the paper proves that unstable elections always contain negatively represented opinions; i.e. if certain electorate opinions move in one direction, the election outcome will move in the opposite direction. In other words, it is possible for the electorate to become more liberal and the election outcome to become more conservative as a result, or vice versa. As an example, if some voters who are center left then move to the far left, they will most likely not be excited to vote for a center left candidate and may vote for a third-party candidate or may not vote at all, enabling the election to go to the right.

“When the electorate is polarized, low voter turnout can fundamentally shift electoral dynamics,” Alex Siegenfeld noted. “This can cause large swings from election to election and can also leave approximately 50 percent of the electorate unrepresented, regardless of the outcome.”

The “Negative Representation and Instability in Democratic Elections” paper is unique because it takes a scientific rather than economic view of elections. When economists think about elections, they don’t factor in stability or instability. Economists make assumptions about how people vote and those assumptions factor into predictions on election outcome. However, when candidates can rely on the general population to vote, it makes the process more predictable. When everyone votes, electoral outcomes become more stabilized.

“Voting not only allows your voice to be heard in this election, but it also contributes to the long-term stability of our democracy,” continued Siegenfeld. “Most people say ‘go vote’ so your vote is heard. What people don’t know is that when candidates can count on people voting, it makes it more likely that elections in the future will become more stable. There’s some debate over whether higher voter turnout is even a good thing, given that many voters are uninformed. Our research scientifically demonstrates that high voter turnout is good, since low voter turnout destabilizes elections and results in negative representation.”

Fannie and John Hertz Foundation

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation is the legacy of John Hertz, a Hungarian immigrant who made his fortune by capitalizing on the entrepreneurship prospects in the budding automotive industry (Hertz Rental Car and Yellow Cab). He believed that innovative and entrepreneurial solutions were vital to the strength, security and prosperity of our nation — and began to the Foundation to support exceptionally talented students in STEM. The over 1,200 Hertz Fellows have gone on to distinguish themselves as one of the most influential groups of innovators, leaders, and disruptors in American science and technology today.

To date, Hertz Fellows collectively possess more than 3,000 patents, have founded more than 200 companies and have received more than 200 major national and international awards, including eight Breakthrough Prizes in Science, the National Medal of Technology, the Fields Medal, Turing Award and two Nobel Prizes. For more information on the Hertz Foundation and the innovations led by our Hertz Fellows please visit