The Case for Low Voter Turnout
People often complain about low voter turnout in the U.S. - 50-55% in presidential election years, and 35-40% in non-presidential election years like 2006. See voter turnout since 1960 at this link. Notice that voter turnout has decreased in the last 45 years by more than 10 percentage points, from 63.1% in the presidential election of 1960 to less than 50% in 1996, and from 48.4% in 1966 to 36.4% in 1998.
Many people are probably upset by this trend, but not I, and here is why: In almost all cases, higher voter turnout would NOT have changed the outcome of the election, and so we get the same election outcome/results at a lower cost to society (measured in the opportunity cost of our time).
I have never heard those who complain about low voter turnout make the argument that higher voter turnout would CHANGE the outcome of the election, they usually just say that more people should vote for other reasons: exercise our right to vote, fulfill our civic duty, participate in democracy, etc.
But I have never heard anyone say "More people should vote because low voter turnout leads to unreliable results," or "more people should vote because that would change the outcome/results of the election. " Mostly, I think people would simply "feel better" if we had the same results with 80% turnout, compared to having those same election results with 40% turnout.
But think about it - would you feel any better about a blood test if they took two pints of your blood compared to 20 ccs? Probably not.
There are about 160 million registered voters in the U.S. From sampling theory, a sample size of 16,639 would accurately and reliably represent the entire population of 160m at a 99% confidence level, with an error of only 1%.
What this means is that if the first 16,000 people who vote when the polls first open in the morning are random voters who represent the population of voters, almost all elections are already decided by 9 a.m. or so in the morning. The rest of the voters are really just wasting their time, in the sense that their votes will not affect the outcome of the election. It is like increasing the blood sample - the blood test will still be positive or negative regardless of the sample size.
The possible exception to this would be an extremely close presidential election like 2000, where "every vote mattered" in a sense, but this was an extreme case. Of course, you don't know ahead of time which elections will be that close, so you could justify always voting, just in case.
But in almost all elections, I would argue that voter turnout has NO effect on the outcome of the election, and the same results would prevail with 20% turnout as 100% turnout. Although most people would "feel better" about the election with 100% turnout, that is irrational in my opinion. If the results are same, I would prefer the 20% turnout, because of the significant saving of time for the 80% who did not vote.
Voting is expensive when measured in its full cost: our time. An hour spent voting is an hour lost forever doing something else. As Gatemouth Brown said (see an earlier post): "My time is expensive, I gotta make it last."
I like low voter turnout, because the election results are almost always exactly same as for high voter turnout, and low voter turnout saves and conserves our most precious non-renewable resource: our time, and therefore it is socially more efficient than high voter turnout.