Sunday, October 26, 2008

Making The Case for Low Voter Turnout; Every Civics Teacher's Worst Nightmare?

People often complain about low voter turnout in the United States, which has declined over time and is very low compared to the turnout in other countries. See U.S. voter turnout since 1960 at this link and see an international comparison of voter turnout at this link.

Notice at the first link that voter turnout in the U.S. has 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 non-presidential election years.
At the second link, notice that a) the U.S. ranks #139 (with 48.3% turnout) out of 172 countries, b) there are 35 countries with voter turnout at 80% or above, and c) Italy is #1 in the world at 92.5%!

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 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, and 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" if we had the same results with 80% turnout, compared to having those same election results with 40% turnout. But think about it this way - would you feel any better about a blood test if they took two pints of your blood compared to 20 ccs? Probably not.

Voting is expensive when measured in its full cost: our time. An hour spent researching the candidates, attending or watching debates, and voting at the poll, is an hour lost forever doing something else. Therefore, I like low voter turnout, because the election results are almost always exactly the 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.

I originally posted about this back in November of 2006, and in September 2007 the
Baltimore Sun ran an article on low voter turnout based partly on my original post, and described me in that article as "an economist, blogger and every civics teacher's worst nightmare."


At 10/26/2008 8:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One reason for low voter turn-out is the Motor Voter law. When folks get a driver's licesne, 99.999% of the time they will answer yes regardless of whether they intend to vote or not to the do you want to register to vote question. so they don't sound stupid, uncaring, unpatriotic, etc. in public.

At 10/26/2008 1:48 PM, Blogger Plamen said...

It seems plausible that the voters who choose not to vote are little motivated to vote (as opposed to undecided), and therefore not as informed about their choices. It would seem that removing uninformed voters UP TO A POINT might increase the average level of... um, informed-ness... of the voter pool, and thus lead to a higher quality decision. Where that POINT is, I do not know, but I would surmise that even at 30% turnout we would not hit it. Your thoughts, Professor Perry?

At 10/26/2008 2:15 PM, Blogger bobble said...

i have always heard that larger voter turnouts favor the democrats, because there are more demos than repubs.

i'm in agreement with plamen. those not motivated to vote are perhaps best left as non-voters.

At 10/26/2008 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must be missing something...

How do you know taht the result would be the same with an 80% turnout as compared to a 40% tournout. Voting only takes place once (I think).

BTW I'm in the "civic duty" schoolwhen it comes to voting. Too many people died defending that right to forego it.

At 10/27/2008 2:55 PM, Blogger Marko said...

Please do not vote. Stay home, let me decide the election. Seriously.

At 10/28/2008 5:02 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> BTW I'm in the "civic duty" schoolwhen it comes to voting. Too many people died defending that right to forego it.

If people took the proper amount of time to properly evaluate their choices when it comes to exercising franchise, I would be all for it.

However, if you can't even take the time to GO and vote, I doubt if you're going to spend the even greater extra time it requires to research your vote and exercise your franchise correctly.

So, on this, I agree with bobbie -- those not motivated sufficiently to go out and vote are far better off not voting.

If someone comes up with a way to make people more responsible voters, I'm all for that.

Short of that, however, I'm ag'in' it.


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