Why Don’t (More) Americans Vote?
If you vote, you just might be a robot. I have the math to prove it.
If you’re American, there’s a good chance you are not going to vote in the upcoming presidential election. In 2016, only 58% of the electorate actually voted. Compared to other democracies, voter turnout in the United States doesn’t even break the top 20. Americans just don’t vote. And it’s been that way since the early 1900s.
So what’s going on?
Well, first of all, let’s do some math to prove that you shouldn’t ever vote.
Here’s an equation for you:
PB + D > C
Where “P” is the probability your vote will affect the outcome of the election.
“B” is the benefits of a favorable outcome.
“D” is duty, or civic duty or any perceived gratification you get from voting.
And finally, “C” is cost. This is the time, effort, and financial cost of going through the voting process.
So in an election like the US presidential election where millions of people are voting, the probability that your individual vote will be the vote that decides the next president is essentially nil.
So we can call “P”, zero.
Times that by “B” and that makes the entire variable zero.
Therefore, what we’re left with is our civic duty vs. the effort of voting. It’s difficult to measure exactly how much we get out of performing our civic duty so we can never have a precise number for that variable. But the costs are much more salient. It takes time to go to the voting booth. We have to take off work. We have to make sure we are registered, and depending on the state, you need proper identification — which takes even more time and effort.
So if everyone is a self-interested, rational actor, voting just isn’t worth it.
This is called the Paradox of Voting.
Thankfully, human beings are hardly ever rational.
As the math says, the decision to vote is a balancing act between our desire to fulfill our civic duty and the personal cost of making the effort to vote. So any barrier, however minor, that impedes our ability to vote, makes it less likely that our civic duty will outweigh the costs.
And America doesn’t make it easy to vote.
First of all, voting laws are not uniform across all 50 states. States require different kinds of ID to vote. In some places you can vote early. Others you can’t. Some states allow mail-in ballots. Some only allow absentee voting in specific circumstances. Some states allow same day registration. Some don’t. And the rules for getting registered vary widely from state to state.
We vote on a Tuesday in the US. A weekday. So most eligible voters have to go to work. Or go to school. Voting might mean having to take off work, sacrificing some amount of your wage, or sacrificing some amount of time before or after work.
Then we have the fact that some votes are inherently worth more than others. You can thank the Electoral College for that. In fact, a single voter in Wyoming is about equal to 4 voters in California.
As the equation shows, one single vote out of a hundred million is never going to be worth much in and of itself — even if you live in Wyoming. But if you feel like you have nothing really to vote for that makes it even more unlikely you will bother voting at all.
And here’s where the two party system comes in. Nearly half of the US population doesn’t even call themselves a Democrat or a Republican. But those are the only major political parties you have to vote for most of the time.
Some states have closed primaries. This means that, to vote in the primary, you have to be a declared Republican or Democrat. If you don’t affiliate with either party, you’re out of luck. You are essentially denied the ability to vote.
Funnelling all the diverse opinions and needs of the US electorate into just two political parties has the effect of making people feel like not only their votes are worthless, but their voices aren’t being represented. That’s how limiting our political choices to just two parties can end up feeling like you have no choice at all.
There’s a saying: “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
But that’s not really true.
The fact is, you can complain even if you didn’t vote. Because often the reasons keeping voter turnout down are completely out of the voter’s hands.
Now I don’t want to give people an excuse not to vote. If you can vote, you should vote. But blaming the American populace for not voting is counterproductive and misguided. In many cases, the US voting system has set up the populace to fail.
Now in the face of a pandemic, rampant disinformation, and foreign election interference, voting can not only be an inconvenience, it can seem depressingly futile — even deadly.
As the Paradox of Voting illustrates, voting is deeply irrational. If human beings were perfectly logical automatons with only their own self-interest in mind, no one would do it. But we aren’t robots. Sometimes we do things that don’t make sense — like care about other people.
Because voting is only irrational if we think solely about ourselves.
If you want to know more about voting in your area of the country, checkout FiveThirtyEight’s state-by-state guide to voting.
There’s another saying: If voting didn’t matter, they wouldn’t try so hard to keep you from doing it.
So get out there and make your vote — and everyone else’s — count.
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