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Why We Vote--And Why We Don't

Even today, even with nearly everyone on both sides predicting a turnout like this country hasn't seen in decades, somewhere between a third and half of all American adults won't vote.

In some countries, voter turnout comes awfully close to 100 percent. In the democracies most like ours, turnout is often in the 80-90 percent range. Not here.

But if you read the works of economists who've studied why people vote and why they don't, the real marvel is that anyone votes at all. "A rational individual should abstain from voting," economist Patricia Funk concluded in an influential paper a few years ago. She studied voting behavior in Switzerland, where slipping turnout numbers provoked the government into creating a vote-by-mail system. But because the system was introduced in some parts of the country before it reached other parts, the result was a perfect scientific experiment: Would making voting ultra-convenient and easy increase turnout? Nope, it has the opposite effect--turnout declined where voting was done by mail. It turns out that the primary motivation for voting is not having an impact on the result of the election--most people realize that one vote really doesn't matter except in the most extreme of rare occasions--but rather the social pressure: We want to be seen voting. We want our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers--whomever we're concerned might think ill of us if we don't vote--to see that we've done our part.

Steven Landsburg, an economist at the University of Rochester, has voted only rarely in his life and recalls only one instance in which he voted with any enthusiasm--for Ronald Reagan in 1980. "But I was young and excited then," he tells me on today's edition of Raw Fisher Radio (available for listening or downloading from noon Tuesday at Now that he's older, he sees little point in voting and recommends against it. "I would prefer to live in a world where people feel social pressure to do something useful," such as helping their neighbors, he says. Even showing up for work is more socially useful than voting, he argues.

But my other guest on today's show, Dennis Thompson, a political philosopher at Harvard University, contends that voting is not only a civic duty, but a social good. The economists who measure voting's efficacy as a human behavior through the narrow lens of an individual's possible impact on the outcome of a race are missing the point, he argues.

"If it's so irrational to vote, why does anybody vote at all?" he asks, and the answer is that voting is a declaration that you are part of the community. "It's like singing at a sporting event," he says. Your single voice isn't likely to stand out from the overall sound of the crowd, but you see and feel an advantage in taking part, and you want to be seen being part of the larger effort.

That said, Thompson notes that voter turnout is generally on the decline, both in this country and in many other places. This year aside, about half of Americans tend to vote in presidential years. Off-year congressional elections attract only half of that mediocre turnout. Thompson says our archaic registration system is partly to blame for low turnout--most western European countries, by contrast, have automatic registration.

Thompson says this year's unusual excitement will likely toss a wrench into all manner of academic theories about voting behavior, but he expects turnout to droop back toward normal levels in succeeding years--unless, of course, it doesn't. "This election is likely to be an outlier, a blip," he says. But it's also possible that many young people coming out to vote for the first time will catch the habit. Stranger things have happened.

While you're mulling those issues, some tea leaves for those who are so inclined:

The Weekly Reader poll of kids across the country has picked the winner in 12 of the last 13 presidential elections. Its latest poll has Obama up over McCain by 54.7 percent to 42.9 percent.

Over at the Intrade online gambling market, Obama shares have been trading at about 88 percent likelihood of victory, while shares for a Democratic win in Virginia have been at about 82 percent over the past few days.

Speaking of Virginia's vote, students at Randolph-Macon College have for the first time in 40 years voted in favor of the Democrat for president. In a mock election last week, students, faculty and staff chose Obama over McCain by 56 percent to 39 percent.

By Marc Fisher |  November 4, 2008; 7:18 AM ET
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I'm inclined not to vote because I live in the Peoples Republic of Arlington. My precinct is so blue that my vote doesn't matter either way. When I lived in the 11th it was more evenly split so it was important.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 4, 2008 8:45 AM

Arrived at the polling site early this moring but the line was so long I didn't have enough time to vote and get to work on time. Will try again this evening. Even though the number of voters are predicted to be larger than past elections, there didn't appear to be an increase in the number of poll workers or voting stations.

Posted by: simonsaid | November 4, 2008 8:53 AM

I would agree that many think that their vote doesn't count.. Poeple are convinced that Diebold is rigging the machines and other believe that ACORN has flooded the system with bogus registrations and states that allow registration and voting on the same day ( even election day ) are having voters bused in by the thousands to go from state to state and vote 4,5,6 times.. It has happened and does happen and will happen this year.

The voting public is so convinced of conspiracies that it doesn't trust the process. The only way to fair and open elections is to require people to register early, show valid ID and vote on election day. That provides a fair and open election without fraud. Some do not like this idea... if they don't you really have to wonder why...

Posted by: tbastian | November 4, 2008 9:09 AM

tbastian | November 4, 2008 9:09 AM is exactly right. People don't want to wait in line to have their vote canceled by cheaters.

Posted by: OldAtlantic | November 4, 2008 9:16 AM

People who do not vote should not be allowed to accept ANY government services - such as driving on public roads, using library facilities, receiving public utilities, garbage collection, postal services, etc.. The men and women who DIED so you have the right to vote deserve the respect and memorial of a vote. I find it incomprehensible that so many Americans thumb their noses at the sacrifice of the lives of our loved ones and of our children for the right to have a say, albiet small, in who decides what services the government provides. So SHAME ON YOU if you don't vote!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: skye3 | November 4, 2008 9:20 AM

My choice to abstain from voting is rooted in an oath I took to defend the constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. In the race for POTUS, there are two individuals running on platforms of sheer disregard for a document I've sworn to defend. Similarly, such is the case in the congressional races in which I may vote.

Unwilling to break my oath, I can not, and will not, place my explicit support behind any candidate. As there exists no place on the ballot for me to place any vote in good faith, I shall vote by not voting at all. All available options result in representation entirely unacceptable to me, and as such I will have to direct my participation in our system to correspondence with those officials.

Posted by: anthonymartinez | November 4, 2008 9:21 AM

But isn't the argument not to vote almost circular? Person X shouldn't vote because their 1 vote doesn't matter when there are thousands that are cast. But then those thousand votes that make X's vote not count are just like person X, and could be told the same thing. So, in a way, the argument is flawed: In order to say 1 person's vote doesn't matter, depends on the fact that other people don't take this advice and do vote. So if 80% of America listened to these people, my vote does count way more than they think, especially if a vast portion of my state doesn't vote.

People died and took huge risks for your right to vote. No matter how useless you think it is, you're just plain lazy and ungrateful to not do it out of respect for those who gave you that right, and the rights that let you speak your might, chose your religion (or not chose one), etc.

Posted by: bourne1 | November 4, 2008 9:21 AM

First of all, I think most educated americans know that they are NOT truely voting for the president in any election. At least not in a sense of one that counts. Your electoral college votes for you and you hope they will vote the will of the people of your particular state. But oddly enough, there is no law that says they have too. One can only hope they do. My contention is this. If there is no consequence for failing to vote the direction of your state by your electoral college in picking you president of choice, then why bother voting at all. Your vote doesnt really count. Not the presidential election of 2000 Bush Vs. Gore. 2000 election popular vote showed Gore 50,999,897 Bush 50,456,897. Electoral college felt my vote didnt matter. So explain to me why 1/2 of all americans dont vote again?

Posted by: julianowens | November 4, 2008 9:22 AM

Nobody mentioned changing election day from Tuesday to Saturday or Sunday. Most people do not work on the weekends. It's a lot easier to get to the polling place when you've got all day to do it.

Posted by: biladu57 | November 4, 2008 9:22 AM

Should the cost of the riot gear all Chicago PD officers have been issued for election day be deducted from the welfare bennies Democrats drain on our system?

Posted by: Bcamp55 | November 4, 2008 9:24 AM

skye3, I'm in complete disagreement with you here. I am serving, and have served in excess of two years in combat. As many of my comrades did in fact die in service to our great nation, allow me to speak directly to memorializing them and those that fell before them through a vote. For quite a long time, the men and women who have enlisted or accepted commission into the armed forces have sworn to defend the constitution. That document contains the very specific rights and duties of the federal government, as well as those of the states and the people. There is no distinction between a voter and a non-voter where the protection of the law is concerned. I find it far more offensive to the memory of those that gave all to cast a vote at odds with the framework they died to protect than to abstain from voting altogether.

Anthony Martinez, SGT

Posted by: anthonymartinez | November 4, 2008 9:27 AM

For those who live in heavily "blue" or heavily "red" areas or states (such as myself: Illinois), that is all the more reason to vote... third party!

As long as your vote "isn't going to change the electoral result" you might as well explore third party options and vote more on conscience rather than strategically... which is my theory why people will always feel drawn to choose between either Republicans or Democrats - each party individually stands the best chance of beating the other!

In future elections, who will the politicians be trying to win the votes of? The "indistinguishable from the base" Republicans or Democrats? Not likely: They will be crafting their platform in an attempt to win over the independent-minded voters who voted 3rd party. One need look no farther than the impact Ross Perot's "loosing" candidacy had on the Clinton Presidency/Republican Congress.

The outlier votes are the ones that ultimately matter the most. If your vote is unlikely to affect the electoral college outcome you might as well vote third party and affect the platforms the controlling parties!

Posted by: MrZach | November 4, 2008 9:31 AM

I voted in (OHIO)it was pencil and paper, that i feed into a machine THAT READ 31 VOTEs RECORDER, after paper feed through, it read 31 votes recorder??????????

Posted by: dv1236 | November 4, 2008 9:32 AM

What has been widely acknowledged since the 2000 and 2004 elections is that there are significant flaws in our voting process, from faulty machines, to wide variations from state to state in registration processes, to laws instated designed to look good which actually disenfranchise many eligible voters. Mandatory ID laws are a good example of such tricky laws -- if you don't drive and haven't traveled overseas you may very well not have your own government issued photo ID; this shouldn't prohibit US citizens from voting.

America sorely needs reforms initiated by the federal government to make the general elections fair for all US citizens. But there is nothing accidental about the USA lagging behind other countries such as Germany and Canada in adopting an automatic voter registration process; the reason is that the unfair system currently in place has consistently favored the neoconservative administration for the last 8 years. It is no surprise that Bush and Cheney haven't reformed the system, and instead are preoccupied with the "voter fraud" buzzword and spooking people about hardworking organizations like ACORN.

The idea that people shouldn't vote because it doesn't have an effect is a 20th century mythology. In the digital world we live in, its possible to get 100% participation in many systems. Its also possible to write a secure server protocol that's pretty darn safe. If the Pentagon uses an intranet to store national security information, why can't there be a voter intranet? Sure, paper ballots are a more reliable way to ensure safe and monitored voting, but I don't believe that the technology is not sophisticated enough to produce a tamper-proof system. Rather, I believe that we are not progressive enough to invest this kind of technological sophistication in our democracy.

If Obama wins today, you can bet it will be in a large part due to his influence in participatory, open forums online such as YouTube. As the generation which has been raised with the internet gets older and has more influence, politics in America will be forced to modernize and keep pace with the other great nations of the world. There is no doubt in my mind that a McCain presidency will serve to prolong voter disenfranchisement. Vote for Obama!

Posted by: Marylander12 | November 4, 2008 9:35 AM

julianowens, you are quite correct that the vote for the executive is far from direct. You are also correct that the electoral college is bound by no federal law (though some states do have legislation in place punishing members of the electoral college that vote opposite the public) to vote for the winner of the popular election. There is, however, a very important vote to which most voters pay no attention - the congressional elections. Your representatives are directly elected, and directly accountable (in theory) to you. I would wager that the vast majority of the American public lives in complete ignorance of the positions held by their elected officials. Far too much attention is paid to the most constitutionally restricted branch of government (as defined in Article II, The Executive Branch), and people become worked up over promises with no possibility of being held true as the candidate, if elected, has no ability to enact such legislation from the office of the presidency. Indeed, there is a shameful lack of attention paid to a far larger body which holds the power of legislation. The framers of this nation saw it fit to describe the role and powers of this branch as the very first thing in the constitution - Article I.

Posted by: anthonymartinez | November 4, 2008 9:36 AM

anthonymartinez, I couldn't agree with you more! I think that is why when the President seizes more power for the Executive branch it doesn't really scare the American public like it should. It is almost as if people are actually thinking, "You mean the President doesn't already have the power to do that?" It is incredibly sad, and I think it will backfire someday...

Posted by: MrZach | November 4, 2008 9:41 AM

While there is no one federal employment law protecting you from being penalized at work for taking time off to vote, I find it very hard to believe that ANY company would actually go so far as to fire you for the single annual act of voting. And I've had some very toxic bosses in cr@ppy jobs.

And early voting (aka in-person absentee voting) was widespread this year. You didn't have a day off anywhere in the past month where you could go and vote?

As for the point that your vote doesn't matter - okay, after Bush/Gore 2000 the major flaw in the Electoral College vs. Popular Vote was exposed. But if you don't vote, then your vote REALLY doesn't matter. Because it isn't there.

Voting is a privilege. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be the 15th, 19th and 24th Amendments to the US Constitution. (Okay, and the 26th, too. It's so easy to find excuses not to vote when there are no barriers (other than inconvenience) to doing so.

It's a flawed system, but it's better than leaders chosen by divine right.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | November 4, 2008 9:43 AM

Two points:

First of all, because of the electoral college, if you don't live in a swing state your vote doesn't really count - so that stops a lot of people from voting.

Secondly, what choice do we really have in this election? Both Obama and McCain voted for the bailout. I want a country where we aren't shoveling cash to a bunch of overpaid bankers in New York. I am clearly at odds with both candidates on that and you can take my lack of a vote as a protest against this failed system and the lack of choices it gives me in this election.

Posted by: bill3 | November 4, 2008 10:07 AM

Based on the arguments provided by the University of Rochester eonomist, I have decided not to vote today, because I am now convinced my vote won't count and doesn't matter. For the same reason, I have decided to stop giving money to charity, stop raising my child properly, and stop paying my taxes. Why should I do these things, if I am just one person. I can't make a difference. I feel relieved that all this pressure is off of me now! Thank you!

Posted by: CNY-DC | November 4, 2008 10:17 AM

Ok. Interesting on some of the replys on my original post. Yes I do vote in the congressional elections as well as my local city elections. I refuse to vote in the presidential election for a variety of reasons including what I had stated earlier. Voting for the sake of voting doesn't fly for me. Voting for the sake of civic duty doesn't work either. I don't believe in wasting my time just because someone wants to go around flag waving. The whole system would move just as well if we all stayed home and just watched what our designated electors tell us who the next president will be. Below is a good link that I pass on to others so that they can educate themselves on what happens during the presidential election.

I know its disheartening to hear the truth that it has nothing to do with why "Our fathers went to war. To fight for some specific right." sigh... Tired of that one.

Posted by: julianowens | November 4, 2008 10:18 AM

Actually, tbastian, in most of the documented cases of voter fraud over the past 15-20 years the perpetrators have been Republicans trying to intimidate or hoodwink voters in districts with high minority populations.

Just why is it that the party of Lincoln is so afraid of black voters?

Posted by: Cossackathon | November 4, 2008 10:39 AM

I voted. I am proud to exercise my right and responsibility by participating in the selection of the elected officials of our great democracy. Many Americans have died to ensure me of this right, this is one way I can return their sacrifice.

Posted by: edwardatvienna | November 4, 2008 10:43 AM

I do't have a problem with someone if they choose not to vote. I do have a problem with people who choose not to vote and then complain about government. I do't disagree wioth tbastian's concept of registration, ID and voting on Election Day. However, in this day and age, it really should NOT take several hours of standing in line to vote. The system really should be much more efficient by now. Therefore, I support the concept of voting early and absentee ballots. For people who cannot afford to take the time off from work or who may not be physically able to stand in line that long should have other options available to them to exercise this basic right. As a beacon of democracy, the US and most of its voting precints need to significantly improve the process of voting on Election Day. I can't even imagine how many problems will be reported by this evening, especially in battleground states and in areas where significantly high turnout is expected.

Posted by: JLF03 | November 4, 2008 10:47 AM

It's so inspiring to see how many of my fellow Feds are using OPM's generous guidelines for late arrival/early departure to try to game a half-day off. One third of our office haven't arrived yet. I know lines are long but I'm guessing they haven't been waiting for 4 hours to vote. Yay democracy!

Posted by: Cossackathon | November 4, 2008 11:40 AM

ronjaboy: Virginia's "winner take all" electoral votes are awarded by the state-wide numbers, not awarded by precinct, so even if your candidate doesn't win in the Senate and House races, for sure your Presidential vote counts today. I'm going to ignore your nasty aside about your neighbors' political leanings. I hate that "People's Republic of..." thing. The PRC is a fundamentally ugly form of government. Shame on you for referring to your fellow Americans that way because they disagree with you. Also, how will your candidates/party ever gain a toehold or impact policy in your area if you stay home and pout because you aren't going to "win"? Your demonstration that you exist and care makes a difference to all of us, so I hope you change your mind.

Posted by: Green_Ipod | November 4, 2008 11:49 AM

I vote because on December 24, 1776, one of my ancestors took a musket ball in the shoulder in Trenton, New Jersey, fighting to ensure that we could vote for our leaders rather than have them imposed on us by a hereditary monarchy. In his memory, and that of his descendents who fought to allow us to continue to vote for our leaders, I voted this morning as I have since I became eligible to vote in 1974.

As a former Arlingtonian I can state that the "Peoples Republic" thing is a little overdone...I'd say "Socialist Workers Paradise" is more like what I experienced there.

For all of you left leaning apologists for ACORN and it's blatant voter fraud I would respectfully point out that Lee Atwater and Karl Rove came of age in an era when the Democratic Party and its proxies actively participated in such events as Cook County, Illinois, ballot box stuffing and irregularities in the West Virginia electoral process. What goes around comes around.

Posted by: jdrsr | November 4, 2008 1:17 PM

I remember in 2004 for someone asked a Bush spokesman why the campaign chose to locate their headquarters in Arlington (as did McCain) even though it was such a heavily Democratic region. The reply: "it's basically about the quality of life here." Glad to see even Republicans can recognize a paradise when they see one.

Posted by: Cossackathon | November 4, 2008 2:26 PM

Arlington, VA Love it or leave it

We have the best Police force, best Firefighters and public schools consistently ranked among the best in the world. We are the smallest county in the Union and if the price I have to pay for all that is to be called socialist by some wanky blogger I'll take it.

Citizens who don't vote are weak and selfish. Please save your lame explainations and move to Europe (Old Europe if you prefer)

Posted by: bob29 | November 4, 2008 3:11 PM

JLF03 ~

Actually, I tend to agree with George Carlin - that those who DON'T vote are the only ones who really have a right to complain. The people who do vote are directly responsible for producing the idiotic government we have... Those who don't are in no way responsible for the government produces, or the problems it produced... Therefore they are the only ones with a right to complain:

Besides, if you pay taxes, you have a right to complain, share your opinion, or write your congressman about how that money is being spent... You don't *have* to vote - voting is just one of many rights and freedoms granted to Americans under a free democracy: There are plenty of other "rights" that may be exercised: free speech being a key one, which are essential for a well functioning democracy.

Why do some people insist that those "other rights" are only available to those who vote? Maybe it should be the other way around: Only people who exercise their right to free speech and speak out publicly can have a right to vote. Makes about as much sense as the former argument...

Posted by: MrZach | November 4, 2008 4:37 PM

I can not, and will not, place my explicit support behind any candidate. As there exists no place on the ballot for me to place any vote in good faith, I shall vote by not voting at all. All available options result in representation entirely unacceptable to me,...

Posted by: anthonymartinez | November 4, 2008 9:21 AM

There is the Green Party, Nader, even the Libertarian Party....

Posted by: cmecyclist | November 4, 2008 5:31 PM

First of all skye3 is an idiot. Second, voting is a privelege. I pay taxes for the roads I drive on, I gave four years of my life to ensure all of our freedoms, and I go to the National Cemetery and Thank all who gave the supreme sacrifice for OUR Country. That's why I don't vote, there's never anyone worthy of my vote.

Posted by: johnnynogood | November 4, 2008 6:30 PM

I don't vote because of religion: I refuse to cast a vote for someone who prefers to cling to a subset of two-thousand-year-old superstitions instead of making the effort to learn how the world really works.

Posted by: PSolus | November 5, 2008 8:54 AM

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