Weird Election Rules: The Baseball Hall of Fame | Professor Matt Ryan

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But Donald Trump won the Electoral College. What would happen if we got rid of the Electoral College? Or if we switched to proportional representation?

It’s hard to predict with certainty how our political elections would look under different rules because the process of determining a president has been effectively unchanged over the last two centuries. Yes, there is considerable benefit to rule consistency. But in an empirical sense, it would be enlightening to have seen America’s voting rules change over time and the impacts of those changes on the process of selecting the president.

But in a broader sense, any variation in election rules — for president, for student body treasurer, or for anything else — allows us to examine the rules’ impact on voting outcomes.

Fortunately for us, there was another election result announced recently that has witnessed some changes in its voting procedure over the years — the annual voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While there’s certainly less at stake with Hall of Fame voting — coercion included — the process can still give us some insight.

Voting for 10

Hall of Fame voting is different from political elections in several ways. First, Hall of Fame voting is not a winner-take-all election. Candidates gain entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame simply by meeting the criteria of being named on 75% of the ballots cast. And, because each voter can put up to 10 players on their ballot, oftentimes several players get inducted in the same voting cycle. This year, three players were inducted by the vote.

More interestingly, players can appear on the ballot numerous times. In essence, voters are considering the same electoral question over several consecutive voting cycles. If we assume voters to be rational, then a voter’s decision on any particular player should not change across ballots and across years. Interestingly, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

The voting history of retired players for the Hall of Fame is littered with cases of receiving markedly different levels of votes across different years. Jim Rice, inducted into the Hall of Fame in his 15th and final year of eligibility in 2009, received 76.4% of the vote; in 1995, during his 1st year of eligibility, he received 29.8%.

The most shocking example may be that of Ralph Kiner, who garnered just 1.1% of the vote in 1960 before finally being inducted in 1975 with 75.4%. How can we explain this seemingly inconsistent result — that only 1% of voters judged a career to be Hall of Fame–worthy in one year, while 75% of voters deemed it worthy just 15 years later?

There are several possibilities. Maybe the assumption that Hall of Fame voters are rational is ill-conceived. Indeed, there is a feeling that voters become more sentimental for fringe candidates over time, perhaps even enough to push them over the 75% threshold for induction. And instances of any candidate losing votes over time — Curt Schilling notwithstanding — are rare.

But maybe we can look to voting rules causing these curious outcomes. As previously mentioned, voters are limited to a maximum of ten players on any particular ballot. It could then be the case that voters feel there are more candidates worthy of Hall of Fame consideration than they are able to vote for, and thus must find some way to prioritize some players over others.

There is some evidence for this having an impact. Of the approximately 300 ballots made public from this year’s vote (OneDrive users can access the data here), over half contained the full 10 names. And nearly a third of those with full ballots directly indicated that they would have preferred to vote for more than 10 players.

While a 1%-to-75% shift may be too big to attribute entirely to ballot-crowd-out, it may well be a significant factor in the general upward trend of vote totals for players over the years.

Who Can Vote?

Another culprit for the shifting vote totals is a constant change in population of those who are able to vote. Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame is run by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). Since 1947, BBWAA limited the ability to vote for the Hall of Fame to members of 10 years or more. Once receiving the ability to vote, members held it until death (unless they decided to opt out).

Then, in 2015, the Hall of Fame announced that BBWAA members who had not actively covered the sports within the last 10 years would be ineligible to vote — effectively ending life-long voting.

It is uncertain exactly what the impact of this voting rule change will be in the long run — it’s possible that sentimentality may drop by removing the longest-tenured voters, and the perception of what it means to be a Hall of Famer may change more quickly in aggregate by removing a chunk of the electorate — but the impact on vote totals has already been felt, as this year’s results showed significant gains for several players languishing in the more-than-5%-but-still-well-below-75% range.

Democracy, and voting, have long been known to be imperfect means of aggregating group preferences. Thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame, however, we can begin to understand the margins by which things tend to get a little weird.


Article by Matt Ryan, Associate Professor of Economics at Duquesne University. Originally published at www.learnliberty.org.