Democracy Against the Odds

More proof that candy and costumes trump all, including civil society: 71 percent of Americans told pollsters they planned on celebrating Halloween this year; 57 percent of voting-age Americans cast a ballot in 2008. Is that cause for worry? I’m not sure about the Halloween half of the story. Its upshot—that 71 percent of Americans shovel time and money into make-believe costumes and youth sugar consumption—probably says something worth considering. But the other half, the voting turnout, says something murkier still.

Voter turnout looks low. In United States presidential elections, despite an uptick in recent years, it has oscillated in the fifties (or slightly higher if, more accurately, the voting-eligible population is considered). That marks a far cry from a bygone 19th century plateau of well over 70 percent. Still, that plateau provides an initial caution: high turnout is no panacea for democratic well-being. The 1800s’ perennial turnout “success” arrived as a product of well-rooted political machines in an era (late century, primarily) when parties increasingly delineated spoils allocation instead of ideology.

That’s not to say low turnout is desirable, of course. Maybe a less apathetic few can make sager decisions in the short term, yet in the long term we should probably hope for a more engaged, informed, higher-turnout populace. But whatever the case, this discussion assumes something basic. It assumes that turnout is in fact low. Is it? Not if a vote’s chance of mattering is effectively zero. Any turnout at all is something to marvel at, if voting is irrational.

And it might be irrational. One study of the 2008 election placed the odds of a decisive vote (state election tied or decided by one vote) at one in 60 million. That is, even if an Obama or Romney victory triggered an immediate $600,000 payout to the decisive voter, the “expected value” of a vote—the vote’s potential benefit multiplied by its probability of decisiveness—would still measure one measly cent. And yet voting has its costs. Average voter waiting times in 2008 were about 16.5 minutes across the country, but often higher—in 2004, some Ohio voters waited as long as 12 hours to cast their votes. Factoring in travel times and forgone wages, surely more than a cent’s worth, tips the scale against voting’s logic. Even the postage on an absentee ballot likely far exceeds the expected value of any one citizen’s vote.

Despite all that, nearly 130 million Americans voted in 2008. That means a majority of U.S. adults appear wildly irrational. (Perversely, then, non-voters must be the wise, logical sorts we should want voting.) Economists remain in search of a comprehensive theory to explain this beyond scapegoating ignorance or irrationality. Proposed explanations are varied. Perhaps voters derive value from voting qua voting—whether an inner, buoyant feeling of civic virtue or an external brag of patriotism to friends and coworkers. Alternatively (or additionally), voters might also seek to prevent a rueful worst-case scenario—a favored candidate’s preventable one-vote loss—rather than to maximize “expected value” across all scenarios. Maybe voters care about victory margins, enlarging a candidate’s mandate or limiting a candidate’s loss. Or, on a related note, voters might value turnout; a larger turnout increases the perceived legitimacy of a winner’s win. Under this impulse, the Soviet Union consistently coerced voter turnout well beyond Western democracies’ to bolster its pre-concluded elections.

This reasoning, however, remains clouded with “mights” and “maybes”—the research lacks a clear, canonical model. But what about a more pointed, related question, at the individual level: Should you vote? Some hold that we should appreciate and exercise our right at the ballot box, especially because so many individuals around the world cannot do so. But voting is a right, not a duty or obligation. The First Amendment doesn’t imply a duty to exercise religion or assemble; the 21st Amendment doesn’t imply a duty to drink liquor. If voting isn’t a duty, and if it isn’t strictly beneficial to the rational citizen either, that does not leave much.

It does leave me, though. I am voting, and even wilder, I am voting in New Jersey, home to 14 foregone conclusions otherwise called my state’s Electoral College votes. Maybe I’m deceiving myself, but at least I have concocted a couple of reasons. Reason number one: I am motivated by the “civic virtue” benefit referenced by economics—voting makes me feel active, in solidarity with my peers. Logical or not, that is reality. Reason number two: in his movie “Love and Death,” Woody Allen’s lead character nicely phrases it for me, explaining why he refrains from suicide despite his atheism: “I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they found something.”

That’s the point mentioned above, minimizing worst-case scenarios. My worst-case scenario is learning that, against one-in-six-million odds, the national election was decided by a one vote margin in one state, New Jersey. For that, I’ll mark up a ballot. Delusional? Maybe. But here’s another statistic to go with the Halloween and voting percentages. According to Gallup, 59 percent of American adults buy a lottery ticket each year, just a hair above 2008’s election turnout number. Lottery tickets are losers’ bets, no doubt. Still, like candy and costumes, they are fun. Call that reason number three.

Brian L. Cronin ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Mather House.