Why does anyone vote? On the face of it, that question seems to have a pretty obvious answer. But ask it of any two strangers walking down the street -- particularly during an election season -- and you're likely to get a galaxy of different answers.
A cynical person might argue that we vote because we've been propagandized in favor of it since birth, incessantly reminded that our Founding Fathers martyred themselves on the battlefields of Lexington and Concord for our right to vote, turning the whole experience into a kind of passion play of democratic guilt.
Any earnest voter who would employ the Founding Fathers argument would most likely compound it with a series of others, hyperventilating as they explain just what is at stake, how voting sends a message, that every vote counts, and that we need to defend our country from the sinister agenda of ___.
This is probably the one thing Democrats and Republicans are most aligned on: whenever the issue is posed to a candidate, regardless of party affiliation, the politician gives the ah-shucks response of "I don't care who you vote for, just so long as you vote."
It's like the Special Olympics or tipping: If you speak against it, you're a monster.
Hence, the issue requires the cold, lifeless hands of an economist to soberly address what might be the most divisive social institution in the U.S. (replacing -- or perhaps disguised as -- the other two historical arms of our dichotomy: race and religion.)
Just before the 2004 election, Slate's Steven E. Landsburg proposed that any single person's vote "will never matter unless the election in your state is within one vote of a dead-even tie." (And even then, it will matter only if your state tips the balance in the electoral college.)
What are the odds of that? "Well," he continued, "let's suppose you live in Florida and that Florida's six million voters are statistically evenly divided -- meaning that each of them has a 50/50 chance of voting for either [the Democrat or the Republican] -- the statistical equivalent of a coin toss. Then the probability you'll break a tie is equal to the probability that exactly three million out of six million tosses will turn up heads. That's about 1 in 3,100 -- roughly the same as the probability you'll be murdered by your mother."
Landsburg goes on to point out that in his home-state of New York during the 2000 presidential election, the value of a single vote in swaying the election was "10 to the 200,708th power," roughly the same chance as "winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row."
While these numbers may raise a few eyebrows, it probably comes as no surprise to any voter that they alone do not determine an election. No voter ever walks into that tiny shower-stall and thinks, "Here I go, about to decide the fate of the nation!" So what, then, is on a person's mind when he or she votes? It's a question that economists -- having the myopically statistical minds that they do -- have posed for years. On the contrary, voters and politicians have equally pondered the opposite: They remain baffled that little more than half of the eligible U.S. population actually participates in major elections.
Continue reading for more reasons not to vote. To shed some light on this societal conundrum, economist Patricia Funk discovered that personal vanity plays a big role in voting habits. In her 2010 paper, "Social Incentives and Voter Turnout: Evidence from the Swiss Mail Ballot System," Funk examined the results of Switzerland's decision to allow mail-in ballots in certain regions during the country's election. She surmised that "citizens with a strong sense of civic duty are more likely to vote," and that the process gave voters a "satisfaction from contributing to the functioning of democracy, and a pleasure from fulfilling a civic duty."
The assumption was that the areas of Switzerland in which mail-in voting was permitted would increase voter turnout, particularly in rural areas, surpassing those which ask voters to travel to a location. But after examining the data, the exact opposite turned out to be true: Voter turnout went down in areas that allowed mail-in ballots.
"As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote," Funk writes. "The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator, or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn't, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in [a smaller] community."
Without the pressure to be seen voting (or, perhaps, the opportunity for smugness against those who didn't vote -- as seen in those hokey "I Voted" stickers), the incentive for going through with it is significantly deflated.
The other side of this coin is the "What's At Stake" motive for voting, illustrating the apocalypse that is sure to fall on all our heads if ___ is elected.
What's rarely argued to be at stake is the loss of all the good things a candidate will do were he/she to lose the election. Citizens no longer seem to vote for any particular candidate anymore (if they ever did). Fear of a dangerous opponent is a far more effective campaign strategy than convincing voters to believe in and love a protagonist. This is why, despite significant blowback, negative ads continue to be more effective and more often employed than positive ones.
"We don't vote to elect great persons to office," argues P.J. O'Rourke in his book Don't Vote: It Just Encourages The Bastards. "They're not that great. We vote to throw the bastards out."
Whenever earnest Democrats are presented with someone who refuses to vote -- like in Samuel L. Jackson's "Wake The Fuck Up" video, or the blindingly sarcastic "WARNING: Don't Vote" video, where dozens of Hollywood celebrities berate the audience for five minutes as if they were a little boy who just pushed his sister, the argument leans almost completely toward how Romney is going to fuck up health care, women's rights, and the middle class. As opposed to Obama's solution for our nation's troubles.
Continue reading for more reasons not to vote. Granted, Romney has pretty much done the same, couching almost his entire campaign as a referendum on the President, propagating the fear that Obama's socialist, anti-American agenda will be our nation's fiscal undoing. Neither campaign has put comparable energy into explaining their own candidate's specific four-year plan (or addressing real issues like Medicare, defense spending or the drug war), because neither of their bases are asking them to. Both campaigns understand that a vote for Romney will most likely be, at heart, a vote against Obama -- and vice versa.
This fear and hatred for the opposition has led most voters to be wholly ignorant of the issues at hand. The more partisan a voter is, the less likely they are to spend any time learning about the other side's platform or, for that matter, their own candidate's platform, outside of some binary media entity that only serves to reinforce a voters ingrained opinion.
Whether it's Fox News or MSNBC, Current TV or The Drudge Report, the voter will be spoon-fed a selection of "facts" presented in a way designed to reinforce the position they already had. Anything else could be an overload of hate and fear -- or, even worse for a candidate relying on his partisan base, confusion.
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"I don't vote, as I believe democracy is a pointless spectacle," said Russell Brand while hosting the MTV Movie Awards last summer, "where we choose between two indistinguishable political parties, neither of whom represent the people, but the interest of powerful business elites that run the world."
And, in fact, if a citizen is truly concerned for the country's welfare, there are a number of other actions he or she could take that would have a far greater impact on society than voting (assuming voting's positive effects outweigh its damages). Writing a letter to a Representative, practicing consumer ethics, volunteering for an afternoon, even picking a piece of trash off the street will benefit the country to a far greater value than casting a vote. Yet these things are, ironically, dismissed with a "what can one man do?" nihilism, while voting remains a sacred institution beyond reproach.
Ultimately, people in this country are motivated to visit the ballot boxes primarily out of vanity, fear and hatred -- with a healthy dose of ignorance sprinkled on top. And until this changes, until the fear induced by one candidate's negative portrayal of another is not sufficient to justify voting, the American public will continue to receive the government that they deserve.
More from our Politics archive: "Bill Clinton on Romney strategy: 'I look like a president, I act like a president.... Elect me!'"