November 3, 1996
"The Case of the Disconnected Voter - Why Bother?: That Question is Posed
by More and More Voters; Their Answer is in the Turnout"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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Barely half of those of voting age will cast a ballot in Tuesday's election.
But among social scientists, the question for decades has not been why so few
vote, but why so many bother.
In his classic 1957 work "An Economic Theory of Democracy," Anthony Downs
stated the problem: "It seems probable that for a great many citizens in a democracy,
rational behavior excludes any investment whatever in political information per
se. No matter how significant a difference between parties is revealed to the
rational citizen by his free information, or how uncertain he is about which party
to support, he realizes that his vote has almost no chance of influencing the
outcome.... He will not even utilize all the free information available, since
assimilating it takes time."
A character in B.F. Skinner's 1948 polemical utopian novel "Walden II" put
it even more succinctly: "The chance that one man's vote will decide the issue
in a national election... is less than the chance that he will be killed on
his way to the polls."
As social scientists sometimes say, with rueful smiles, the declining rates
of voter turnout simply show that human voters are becoming more like the mythical
beings that inhabit economic models: strictly selfish, logical, and rational.
While this evolution may gladden the hearts of economic theorists, it can be
a mixed benefit to others. After all, even though the drive of selfish individuals
fuels much of the liveliness, richness, and humanity of democratic capitalism,
selfishness cannot stand alone.
No society can hold together if everyone is monomaniacally out for what they
can get. We need a leavening of public duty and civic spirit.
Research on voting patterns has shown that those who vote tend to be more connected.
Married people are more likely to vote than single people. Those with a job are
more likely to vote than the unemployed. Those who have lived longer in an area
are more likely to vote. Those who say that they know their neighbors and talk
to them are more likely to vote.
This helps to explain why voter turnout has been dropping for decades. Roots
have become shallow. People move again and again, across towns and between states.
Lower fertility rates mean that fewer parents are brought together by their children.
The rise of two-earner families means that fewer people are home by day to get
acquainted in neighborhoods.
In our modern world, interacting with humans is out: interacting with screens
is in. When human interactions still occur, more and more of them happen through
economic exchanges, rather than bonds of a common humanity.
When policy geeks talk about how to increase voter turnout, they focus on reducing
the barriers to voting. Over the last few decades, for example, poll taxes and
literacy tests have vanished. Residency requirements for voters have become more
lenient. Polling hours have lengthened. Registering to vote and casting an absentee
ballot are now easier.
Nonetheless, turnout keeps dropping, which is evidence that the problem lies
not with costs of registering or voting, but with a decline in social connectedness
which makes voting feel irrelevant.
The act of voting expresses a sense of attachedness, of allegiance, of shared
responsibility. Indeed, survey research shows that voters are more likely to display
other forms of socially cooperative behavior as well, like using their turn signals
in traffic, returning census forms, and giving to charity. The decline in voter
turnout, like falling mercury in a thermometer, registers that our society has
become a little chillier.
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