Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Making The Case for Low Voter Turnout

People often complain about low voter turnout in the U.S., which has declined over time and is much lower than voter turnout in other countries. Notice at the first link that voter turnout in the U.S. has generally decreased over time, from greater than 60% in every presidential election year during the 1960s, to less than 60% in every presidential election since, and below 50% in 1996. The pattern is the same for midterm elections - voter turnout was close to 50% in the 1960s, and fell to below 40% starting in the 1970s.  The second link shows that the U.S. ranks #120 (with 66.5% turnout) out of 169 countries in an international voting comparison by International IDEA

Many people are upset by low U.S. voter turnout, but maybe they shouldn't be, and here's why: In almost all cases, higher voter turnout would NOT have changed the outcome of the election, and we therefore get the same election results at a lower cost to society, measured in the opportunity cost of our time.

Those who complain about low voter turnout almost never make the argument that higher voter turnout would CHANGE the outcome of the election; their position is usually that more people should vote for other reasons: to exercise our right to vote, to fulfill our civic duty, or to participate in democracy. 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 of the election."

Mostly, I think people would simply "feel better" with a 90% turnout, compared to having the same election results with only 40% turnout.  But think about this - would you feel any better about a blood test if they took two pints of your blood instead of just 20 ccs?  Probably not.

There are about 160 million registered voters in the U.S.  From statistics, we know that a sample size of 16,639 would accurately and reliably represent the entire population of 160 million 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 a blood test - the results won’t change with a larger sample.

Voting is expensive when measured in its full cost: our time. An hour spent researching the candidates, attending or watching debates, and waiting in line to vote at the poll (see photo above), is an hour lost forever doing something else. Therefore, a case can be make for low voter turnout, because the election results are almost always exactly the same as an election with high voter turnout.  Low voter turnout saves our most precious non-renewable resource: our time, and therefore it is socially more efficient than high voter turnout.  We should be proud of, not ashamed of America’s international ranking at #120 for voter turnout - it shows we're serious about conserving scarce resources. 

22 Comments:

At 11/02/2010 8:36 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

"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,"

Not likely. The opportunity cost for a 70 year old retiree is almost certainly less than that for a young aircraft mechanic who will earn overtime pay this week because he picks up an extra shift on election day. Or lower than that for the freshly minted management consultant who might make that multi-million dollar sale to a Fortune 500 company today if he only spends a little more time preparing before he calls on them.

Lower opportunity cost is one reason voter participation among seniors has been for many decades higher than that of younger folks. In recent mid-term elections, voting participation of seniors (age 65+) has been about double that of those younger than 25.

 
At 11/02/2010 8:44 AM, Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

I'm not convinced that low voter turnout doesn't change results. There's plenty of evidence that voter turnout is skewed towards certain demographics that on balance favours Republicans.

 
At 11/02/2010 8:44 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Voter turnout among younger folks is even worse than I stated above. Here's the reported voter participation by age group in 2006:

18-20: 17%
21-24: 22%
25-34: 28%
35-44: 40%
45-64: 54%
65+ : 61%

Source: 2010 U.S. Statistical Abstract

Voter participation is anything but representative of the electorate. Furthermore, in higher participation election cycles - in the presidential election years - the gap between old and young narrows considerably.

 
At 11/02/2010 9:06 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"Voting is expensive when measured in its full cost: our time. An hour spent researching the candidates, attending or watching debates, and waiting in line to vote at the poll (see photo above), is an hour lost forever doing something else"....

Expensive as compared to what?

Paying more taxes and fees on the local level because the person didn't bother spending the extra time needed to cast an intelligent vote?

Voting might be time lost for a day or two, taxes and fees go on forever...:-)

 
At 11/02/2010 10:34 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

According to Prof. Michael McDonald of George Mason University The presidential elections have the highest turnouts. The pinnacle of turnouts was in the "Machine Era" (1828-1896) when political party machines used a variety of questionable methods to get the vote out for their candidates. The lowest turnout era was the "Founding Era" ((1789-1828).

The compeitiveness of a presidential race is the biggest factor in getting out the vote. A 6.3% turnout in 1792 was mostly because George Washington ran un-opposed. A modern era high was 64% for the very close Nixon-Kennedy race in 1960.

Gotta vote now; hope you will do the same.

 
At 11/02/2010 10:38 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

"There are about 160 million registered voters in the U.S. From statistics, we know that a sample size of 16,639 would accurately and reliably represent the entire population of 160 million at a 99% confidence level, with an error of only 1%."

Was the Gore v. Bush 2000 election within that 1% range? If so, we have to wonder how much different the U.S. would be today with a probable 8 years of Al Gore compared to 8 years of George Bush in charge. I see the problem as often not knowing which election will be close until after the fact.

I am going to vote now. All you people who are voting against the people and proposals that I am voting for can feel free to stay home and watch television :)

 
At 11/02/2010 11:38 AM, Blogger Hydra said...

Isn't the "Silent Majority" argument one that agues the REAL vote would be different?

Don't we constantly hear arguments (or claims) about what "the people really want"?

Anyway, i voted and don;t think it makes anu difference. Even if the guy I voted gor gets elected, he is going to do as he damn well pleases. There is no real feedback.

I think your tax return should have a simplified budget on the back side. You fill in where you think your money should be spent, aand the return isn;t complete unless you do.

Averaged over several million people, the budget prbably would not change much, but if some politician proposes expenditures that are different fromthe published results, then he would have some 'splainin' to do.

 
At 11/02/2010 11:41 AM, Blogger Hydra said...

Expensive as compared to paying more taxes and fees?


Depends on what you get for your taxes and fees.

 
At 11/02/2010 12:27 PM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

"Even if the guy I voted gor gets elected, he is going to do as he damn well pleases. There is no real feedback."

A few dozen incumbent members of Congress are going to lose their jobs today. Why? Because they ignored the wishes of their constituents and voted for a stimulus bill and voted for Obamacare. I think that's real feedback, Hydra.

 
At 11/02/2010 12:39 PM, Blogger Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting read on the The "paradox of participation"--why individuals cast ballots when they have virtually no effect on electoral outcomes:

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6977.html

 
At 11/02/2010 3:06 PM, Blogger StVIS said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 11/02/2010 3:15 PM, Blogger StVIS said...

Well, one can implement whatever opinion they wish about the necessity of voting, but I think one maxim has proven to stand the test of time in this regard: Every democracy gets the government it deserves.

The Founding Fathers must have liked the concept of democracy (well, technically we're a republic, but that's besides the point), as a fair number of them were deeply affected by the revolution: some of them ended up bankrupt, some saw themselves or their loved ones imprisoned, some of them died as a result of the cause.

Considering our abhorrent financial situation and our long neglect of our infrastructure, perhaps we've all had our priories set on the wrong things for a long, long time.

Walt G said, "Was the Gore v. Bush 2000 election within that 1% range?"

Bingo. You nailed it. Remember how crazy Florida was?

 
At 11/02/2010 4:03 PM, Blogger reprise8 said...

I tend to agree with Steamboat Lion (8:44 AM). Look at the total vote in a midterm election by district. Solid Democat districts in NJ (urban areas where the D gets 75-90% of the vote), will have half or less than half of the turnout of a majority R district, or one that is close to 50-50 (suburban districts).

In the 2009 statehouse elections, taking all the votes en masse (disregarding districts) the R candidates got more than half of the total of votes cast. Yet the legislature has solid D majorities.

That is because fewer solidly R districts had a much higher turnout than a greater number of D districts.

One can not assume that people act in a randomly distributed fashion. A flipped coin has no motive for turning up either heads or tails. A cut deck has no interest whether you get an ace or a trey. People have personality traits and motives. And not all people act the same or in equal proportions. And people with certain common viewpoints will act differently than another group.

Expecting people of all varying political persuasions to act in perfect proportion to their respective populations would be analogous to expecting equal cancer rates among smokers and non-smokers.

 
At 11/02/2010 4:41 PM, Blogger Joe said...

"A few dozen incumbent members of Congress are going to lose their jobs today. Why? Because they ignored the wishes of their constituents and voted for a stimulus bill and voted for Obamacare. I think that's real feedback, Hydra."

It's feedback but it's weak feedback. For one, they've been in office long enough and done enough different things that it's unclear why they're being voted out of office. Better feedback is if they were voted out of office as soon as they did something bad. Also, it's weak feedback because most of the incumbents will get reelected anyways. An anticipated 80% reelection rate is not commensurate with the high level of voter dissatisfaction with congress.

 
At 11/02/2010 4:51 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

The problem is that most people dislike other people's Congressmen, but they like their own enough to vote them back in again.

 
At 11/02/2010 5:10 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"In recent mid-term elections, voting participation of seniors (age 65+) has been about double that of those younger than 25."

I see this as a good sign, as I believe it's possible those older folks might have some actual knowledge of what they are really voting on, as compared to those under 25, who in my limited experience seem to prefer to vote for their favorite sound byte..

 
At 11/02/2010 7:43 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"Depends on what you get for your taxes and fees"...

Serious question hydra what in your own experience have you gotten for your extorted tax/fee dollar that was worth it?

 
At 11/02/2010 8:11 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"The problem is that most people dislike other people's Congressmen, but they like their own enough to vote them back in again"...

Well Walt G I personally dispise the progressive, socialist parasite who's my Representative to Congress from Missouri's first district...

 
At 11/02/2010 11:01 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"I personally dispise the progressive, socialist parasite who's my Representative to Congress from Missouri's first district..."

And I see that you appear to be stuck with him again. How can you be so lucky?

 
At 11/03/2010 6:54 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"And I see that you appear to be stuck with him again. How can you be so lucky?"...

Gee Ron H, such luck can only be described in terms of clinical stupidity...

 
At 11/03/2010 7:02 AM, Blogger alan said...

There's nothing wrong with a small sample (of blood) as long as it is representative of the entire volume. But how do you obtain a small but still representative sample of the population? Voting is not well-mixed blood... it does not occur randomly.

 
At 11/03/2010 12:13 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Gee Ron H, such luck can only be described in terms of clinical stupidity...

Thanks for the article - I think - I couldn't read the whole thing because my eyes started to bleed. I can see why you're upset. On the bright side, I see his pick for senator lost.

 

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