Monday, November 07, 2005

Gov 20 Memories, High Turnout Dreams

On the first day of Jack Pitney's Gov 20 (that's the honors section, thank you very much), he asked a question that's stuck with me for the past - good lord - nine years: Does every vote count?

Of course, I argued - of course it does. I based my answer on the same argument your mother uses against you when you pick flowers from a public garden: if everyone picked a flower, would there be any left to enjoy? Conversly, if everyone stayed home, how would anyone get elected?

But the numbers really are against me. Even in the frustratingly close last few elections, one vote may or may not have made the difference - but, as this NYT article, "Why Vote?" explains, close elections can actually result in the removal of that monumental power from the margin to the courts:

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years - a 1910 race in Buffalo - was decided by a single vote.

But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race. It is true that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of voters; but their names were Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. And it was only the votes they cast while wearing their robes that mattered, not the ones they may have cast in their home precincts.
Economists - those other CMC demigods - argue that rational individuals abstain from voting. On the eve of yet another damn California statewide election, its hard to feel like a rational voter, that much is true, but what about the process generally?

The article offers a few possibilities: we're stupid and think we matter; we like games of chance - voting is like the lottery so what the hell, try to change the world like you try to change your bank account; or the civic-duty argument has school-house-rocked its way into our minds and guilt propels us to the polls. Well, a little less than half of us, anyway . . . .

It's an interesting article, to be sure - and will make for great cocktail party discussions (if you attend the same wonky parties I do anyway).

Oh - and in yet another bit of proof that I may be missing my calling, I began this post (as I routinely do) while reading the article, meaning I didn't have a complete picture at the start of where the piece would go. So when the NYT busts the flower-picking argument, know that I got there on my own. For whatever that's worth.

At any rate - read the article and ponder the Swiss model of voting and its results. Then think about whether arguments about making voting "easier" would result in the massive behavorial change that is the stuff of activits' dreams. I will forever maintain that leading voters to water won't likley lead them to quench their thirst for democratic participation. A war, economic downturn, fiscal crises, and rampant corruption never seems to make them thirty. I'm not sure what will.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

While super duper close elections are exceedingly rare, perhaps, that's because they don't factor into account, those voters who've been turned away, or their ballots not counted, or those that have been purged from the rolls in the first place.

When we look at whether elections might be "close" from this perspective, it changes things dramatically, IMO.

Every vote should count. Many times, they aren't for a variety of familiar reasons -- sometimes involving the intersection of voting laws (i.e. provisional ballot laws), other times because of poll worker (or voter) incompentence, and sometimes because of partisan (or regular administrative but inaccurate) purges.

I know several person who thought they were registered but had been "purged" from the voter registration list in ways that were completely improper. I'd suggest that because these people's votes didn't count (they tried to vote provisionally), that they should be added to the calculation.

Voter ID laws (see LA Times today) also have the effect of making it harder for eligible persons to register and cast a vote. Arizona's going to be a black hole resulting in lots of folks turned away. So while the end result may look like a landslide, because those that are turned away may tend to be Democrats (poor, minorites, elderly, Native Americans), the result could have been much different.

sorry for the ramblin'

cd said...

Doughnut70, I was worried you'd left us for good . . . .

Anonymous said...

there's a new nut in town. Not doughnut.

cd said...

okay - nevermind then. but you use "IMO," you'll be assigned to the doughnut70 school of commentary.

Jared said...

With all these people making a seemingly irrational decision (because voting as an means to influence the government is quite minimal in effect, as you point out), there must be either a rational reason other than to attempt to influence the government, or an irrational reason.

Let me suggest that people vote not out of a calculus that they will somehow influence the election, but rather that they want their voice to be heard on these matters. It's a form of expression, and even for those who might vote for such a hopeless cause that no one else supports them (like writing in their dead grandmother for Congress), they will have acknowledged their support for their cause. Seen in that way, voting is as much about having a voice as it is about having power.

Of course, many alternative rationales are available for voting, such as expression of a felt civic duty of participation. Or irrational desires, such as a desire to cause harm to your political opponents. Feel free to consider your own reasons to vote.

The point is, it's not irrational to vote if the needs you fulfill in voting outweigh the costs. And especially for those of us who are vocal and feel a need to fulfill some civic duty, voting even for a lost cause is a rational behavior.