Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Yes, You Should Vote

There have been two interesting threads in the blogosphere of late about whether people should vote. The first, being carried out at Marginal Revolution and other sites, concerns the cost-benefit approach to voting, which is based on the idea that I should only vote if there is a sufficiently high probability that my vote will break a tie (and that the personal benefits of breaking that tie in my favor exceed the personal costs of casting the vote). With regard to these mathematical discussions, I can only add that there are always multiple races being decided on each ballot. So the relevant probability is that you will be the deciding voter in any of the races, not just the top one for President. That improves the mathematical case somewhat.

The second thread started a couple of weeks ago, with the interview that Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave to Salon.com in which they responded to an open letter from Sean Penn criticizing their movie (Team America). According to Stone:

"All we ever said was that we thought that uninformed people should not vote -- on either side of the political spectrum. It doesn't matter who you're gonna vote for. If you really don't know who you're gonna vote for, or are uninformed, or haven't really thought about it? Just stay home."
So now the question becomes, should you vote even if you are uninformed? In my opinion, the answer is yes, particularly among young voters. According to the Census, for the November 2000 elections, the number of voters was equal to about 59 percent of the number of the U.S. citizens age 18 and over. The ratio was only 36 percent for those 18-24 and rose with age to be over 70 percent for those 65 and over.

I conjecture that if a cohort demonstrates that it will overcome the personal costs of voting, then it will attract resources from the federal government. The elderly turn out to vote, and we have enormous (and underfunded) entitlement programs for the elderly. These two facts are not unrelated. Would Social Security and Medicare really have developed into the programs that they are today if the 18-24 year old cohort had a 70 percent turnout and the 65+ cohort had a 36 percent turnout? I think not. Imagine if student loans were the "third rail" of American politics.

I am not advocating that people should keep themselves uninformed or that they should think of voting as a way to redistribute resources toward themselves. I think that greater voter turnout, particularly among the young, would add some balance to the way the elected officials pursue their policies.


Anonymous said...

Professor, your idea strikes me as one of the best posited reasons for young people to vote; it certainly is a drastic improvement over the scare tactics or silly pop culture employed by the folks at Rock the Vote.

I think there's one problem with your suggestion, though. If I were a young voter, uninformed and therefore apathetic, where would I get the political inspiration to vote merely for the sake of making myself part of a more vocal constituency? I think that the person most likely to adopt this complex political assertion would not be the person who would remain uninformed.

Granted, you could argue that the point isn't to have students decide this for themselves; they should just vote because they are told, and it will be justified because it is ultimately to their benefit. But I don’t think this resolves what is inherently wrong with these "get out the vote" campaigns in the first place. They herd voters into the polls like political bosses of old with little regard to the political principle underlying the election.

Thanks, though, for elevating the debate about voter turnout. I like it much more than P. Diddy’s suggestion: “Vote or Die”

- Nick Desai ‘08

Giant Step said...

Your first point--that multiple races appear on each ballot and this increases the benefits of voting--is a good one and has gone unmentioned by Landsburg et. al.

But your last point--"I think that greater voter turnout, particularly among the young, would add some balance to the way the elected officials pursue their policies."--doesn't seem particularly relevant here.

I agree that higher turnout among any group correlates with more political clout. But we are considering the incentives facing the marginal individual. It can't be the case that the vote of a single extra 18-year-old will change the rate of turnout in the 18-24 age group significantly, if at all. But you seem to assume it would. Why?