Friday, October 29, 2010

Vote or Die - I Think Not

Every other year around this time we are lectured by celebutards and dissolute rock stars on the importance of voting. Never mind that they often don’t bother to vote themselves. What’s important is projecting a hip, sophisticated public image...dude.

But I applaud the fact they don’t vote. If you can’t name the vice president, how is voting going to help you or society? Please, stay home. Don’t vote. Voting is not a responsibility, informed voting is. If you’re not up to the task, don’t inflict yourselves on the rest of us.

In college, I had political science professors who would constantly bemoan low voter turnout, which they viewed as a manifestly bad thing. Naturally, when a bunch of poli sci profs all agreed, it was my instinct to take the opposing view. But first, I needed facts. 

So, off to the musty stacks (this was pre-internet, of course), where I examined voter turnout ratios around the world. It turns out it was very high (90% plus) in places like the Soviet Union and Cuba, while being low in the U.S. (presidential election turnouts were around 50% then, and only slightly higher now). If you’re wondering about the existence of elections in communist countries, they did indeed have them, but they were just a show for the West so they could call themselves “democratic.” Even though there would only be one candidate, you would vote because you feared retribution if you didn’t. Ergo, high turnout.

The next group of countries I would describe as distressed third world democracies, all of which had high turnouts (70-80%). Were these countries somehow better than ours, since they obviously had such good citizens?

The pattern that emerged, as I spent an all-too-rare late night in the stacks, was that really miserable countries have high turnouts while developed and prosperous countries have low turnouts. I correlated turnout with GDP, and it turned out to be a pretty good negative correlation.

The explanation? In countries like the U.S., with well-developed laws protecting one's liberties and property rights, it doesn’t always matter much which candidate wins. One might help you marginally, the other hurt you marginally, but the difference isn’t perceived by most as enough to justify paying attention. There is a “cost” associated with the time it takes to become engaged and informed, and for most people the perceived benefit of voting must overcome the cost in order to vote.

In a distressed country, the landscape is quite different. Who wins can determine whether there will be food on your table next year. You damn well vote.

My professor gave me a C. I was miffed at the time, but today I view it as a merit badge.

As an aside, the election next Tuesday represents probably the clearest ideological choice we have been presented in decades. There are two vastly different paths being presented for our country’s future. With more at stake than is typical, if my long-ago theory holds true we should see an uptick in turnout. The last few midterms have very consistently averaged about 37%. Let’s see where this one ends up.

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