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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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