A preface: I do not vote and am a staunch advocate of voter abstention. My “voter apathy” does not arise from passive apathy, but active removal, springing from two riverheads. One is that voting is fundamentally irrational; the other, that voting is philosophically a pathetic exercise.
In the ivory halls of some university economics departments lives a prolific, probably apocryphal story about two economists that run into each other at the voting booth. The economists, both quite embarrassed, concede that their spouses made them come, and that neither shall tell they saw the other.
Economics is the study of human behavior, and it makes the assumption that a rational person acts in such a way that the benefits exceed the costs.
Why would two economists be embarrassed to be seen at the polls? Because voting, as all things, has a cost. A cost in time, effort, productivity, and opportunity, while net no seemingly discernable benefit. As economist Patricia Funk put it, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”
That is not to say that being politically informed is a bad thing. But there is a difference between knowing the ins-and-outs of local candidate running in your district, up to the federal level, can take countless arduous hours of research even with readily available resources.
This may seem like quite a petty complaint, but voters are real people living very real lives, who often simply just cannot afford to do so. And why should they bother? As will be discussed below, their individual vote’s impact is virtually nil, and even so there is no guarantee that those they vote will adhere to their platform or be able to implement it.
There is also the very real cost of registering, making your way to the polls, and waiting often several hours to cast your vote. In many states voters are also required to bring photo-identification as a result of contentious “Voter ID” laws.
Economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter analyzed over 56,000 Congressional and state legislative elections since 1898. What did they find: first off all, despite media hype, close elections are rare, the median margin of victory being between 22 and 25 percent. Out of 40,000 state elections, encompassing approximately one-billion votes, only seven were decided by a single vote, with two others tying.
In 16,000 Congressional elections, which receive far greater voter participation, only one race in the past 100 years, a 1910 Buffalo race, was decided by a single vote.
Who knows, maybe a .00625% is enough to sway advocates, but also remember the closer the vote, the more likely the vote is to be taken out of the hands of the people. The case of 2000 is a perfect example of this. While the tight-knit race between Gore and Bush did come down to a small handful of votes, they were the votes of Kennedy, O’Connor, Rehnquist, Thomas and Scalia, adorned in their judicial robes.
Additionally, in the case of ties in the Electoral College, the House decides. But each state is a given a vote, meaning Alaska, with one representative’s vote count as much as California, having 53 representatives and accounting for as much as nine percent of the population. In fact, the top 10 biggest states account for roughly half of the US population, but only represent 20 percent of the vote in this situation.
Our Electoral College means some people’s votes count more than others. CGP Grey, educator and YouTuber, does a brilliant analysis highlighting these inequities and demonstrating how it is possible to win the electoral vote, while garnering about 22 percent of the popular vote.
There are three primary reasons the average citizen votes, or at least, the average voting citizen votes:
1. They wrongly believe against statistical evidence and that their individual vote matters.
2. Voting, much like purchasing a lottery ticket, too many may be a relatively fun and cheap way to feel as though you are making a difference. Just like the lottery, however, your odds are astronomical.
3. The principle reason: we as a society have been socialized to believe in voting as a “civic duty” and thus feel guilty for not voting. This is always supported by blanket patriotism and used antagonistically against non-voters, with no due justification.
Critics say, that if everyone thought like an economist, then no one would vote and there would be no elections in the first place — undeniable. However, it is not the case. To give an example: Say there is a father and his daughter walking through a flower field. The daughter picks a flower, to which the father remarks that she should not, because if everyone were to do so then there would be no flowers. Regardless, everyone is not picking flowers, people will still vote, thus any individual’s vote remains infinitesimal.
In past centuries, parties have often paid voters upwards of $5 or $10 to cast their ballot and surely that provides ample benefit for the cost exacted by voting. Inversely, many have advocated for the “internet ballot” as a way of upping voter participation, focusing on reducing costs rather than providing benefit.
Funk found in Switzerland a compelling natural experiment against the idea of the internet ballot, and other methods of reducing voting costs. The Swiss have always been avid voters, in parliamentary or plebiscite elections. However, turnout had begun to slip over the years. To remedy the problem the Swiss government introduced the mail-in ballot.
In which citizens would not even have to register, ballots would be mailed out to all of the eligible citizens to simply fill out and send back. At first, one would think that turnout would increase exponentially, now having the cost to vote nearly eradicated.
One would think. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Voter turnout decreased, particularly in the smaller cantons (state-like divisions in Switzerland). In these smaller communities, people tend to know each other better and gossip more. Rather than cut costs, Switzerland unintentionally removed all real benefits. This affirms the real reason people, wholistically, vote in a society. The third aforementioned social aspect of voting.
As previously described, voting does come with a very tangible and real cost, for essentially zero benefit, in terms of affecting the outcome. The question remains: Why do people vote? Because voting is a social exercise. When one has to drudge out to the polls and wait in line it feels to the individual as though they are doing their “civic duty.”
However, as Switzerland did, take away the experience and the people become completely disillusioned. Now Swiss citizens do not have to worry about if their nosy neighbor sees them at the polls, or feel guilty that they are not going out to vote.
“There exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls,” writes Funk. Take away that benefit, and it is clearly shown that voting itself is a much greater cost than good to the individual.
Quite ironically, in an economic fashion, people do vote out of self-interest, although motivated by irrationally emotions, the only incentive to vote is a social one.
In conclusion, within myself, and other abstainers, exists a stark philosophical divide with voting. I find it to be a truly pathetic and repulsive act. It is a tacit admission of subservience. In political systems, particularly our modern American one, the citizenry does not dictate the governors. Voting is instead, a passive begging for whatever vestiges of the peoples’ rights and freedoms remain. As well as a way to force special interests on the rest of the population.
The Declaration of Independence champions social contract, the idea of “consent of the governed;” however, Congress sits at around 14% rating, corruption and collusion are prolific and have grown exponentially since the 20th century. The Declaration also claims “all men are created equal.” While not equal in birth or agency, all men are equal in humanity, that no man is the involuntary master of another.
These are not your servants, but your masters.