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 washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio.) 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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