Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who Cares?: An Analysis of Nonvoting

To start, a brief consideration of Freakonomics.  As Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt point out, there is pretty much no economic incentive for someone to actually vote.  A single vote is worth very little in any election, but in a general election, such as that for president, where upwards of 130 million votes are cast.  In fact, as they point out that, in the last century there has been only a single election where the outcome has been decided by a single vote.  As such, considering the increasing size of the nation, is it any curiosity that voter turnout (as a percentage) has dropped considerably from its inception?  As disenfranchised voter Luke Banda states, "A simple understanding of statistics shows that my vote does not matter."

The donut beats the vote every time
Yet, to be completely accurate, voter turnout has not dropped but instead risen over the past decade.  Rather, if the general election is any indication, the turnout has only increased from 1996 to 2008.  More people are voting in terms of number and in terms of percent.  And the reason?  It may well be the very factor that many have demonized as the degradation of modern politics: the increasing polarization of the political spectrum.

Off green bars correlate to general elections, bluish are for midterms
 In an example of how polarization on a national level has increased, Abramowitz & Saunders point out the job approval ratings of the president over the past several years.  In 1972 the difference, in percentage points, in approval ratings of the president's job between democrats and republicans was 36 points.  By 1980 it was at 42 points, then 52 in 1988, 55 in 1996, and 71 points in 2004 for George W. Bush.  Over that same period of time, voter turnout has displayed a varied but gradual increase.  Perhaps the most simple conclusion that may be drawn from this is that the increasing level of polarization is leading to more people voting, at least for president.  Which, for better or worse, is what one should expect to happen.  Polarization and some of the extremist strains in it serve to energize the party base, and in doing so, help to get more people out voting.

For example, think of the Occupy movement that occurred for the majority of 2011.  Over the course of several months the protest was in the news and on the internet, as groups of people all over the world congregated to protest on behalf of the 99%.  In some ways the movement was successful, but most obviously, it has largely failed in the fact that it has largely dispersed.  It exists to some degree, but it no longer draws any coverage from major outlets or wields any sort of political might that could be used to further the goals of the movement.  As Dr. Klumpp described in his podcast, a movement needs to draw energy and to continue to motivate its base in order to continue to exist and be influential.  In this manner, the Occupy protest ultimately failed as by-and-large they simply existed in city squares.  On the flip side of the coin, political parties know they need to motivate their bases to vote in order to stand a chance in elections.  Thus, parties seek to energize their bases for the election, by the convention, through ads, or through rather aggressive rhetoric, such as that demonstrated in this campaign.  But, there still remains one important question: why is the voter turnout predicted to fall in 2012?

This year's presidential campaign has shaped up to be one of the most polarized and polarizing elections ever.  There's hardly any need to qualify that statement, just talk to someone else about the election or venture into some of the political regions of the blogosphere.  Given the general trend that voter turnout seems to be related to the polarization of the political climate, it seems that for the 2012 election voter turnout should be higher even than 2008.  Yet, if a recent Gallup Poll is any indication, the turnout for this election will be lower than in both 2008 and 2004.  The reason may well be simple apathy, or related to hurricane Sandy, but it much more likely is the exact same reason that voter turnout should be more than past years.

There is an occurrence described by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called the Spiral of Silence.  She describes an the spiral as happening where a member of a minority opinion remains silent so as not to remain isolated from the majority of society.  In an NPR article on nonvoters, Linton Weeks noted that "Conservative voters in predominately liberal states - and vice versa - just didn't see the point."  The polarization of this campaign year can only lead to an intensification of this effect, as people are finding that there is little middle ground left in between the two campaigns, as well as little room for dissenting opinions in certain states.  In fact, the polarization demonstrated in this campaign is most noticeable when looking at the breakdown of (expected) voting on the electoral map of this election.  How things will go is uncertain, but it is not an unthinkable occurrence that the entire election will come down to a single state, namely Ohio.  And considering that Ohio is a closely contested state, it could come down even to a single county within the entire state.  Which means that, for a republican voter in California or a democratic voter in Oklahoma, there is little reason to cast a vote that will be meaningless in his or her own state when the entire election will be decided elsewhere.  And this is not a trend that seems likely to be reversed any time soon.  According to Abramowitz & Saunders, in 1960 there were a total of 24 battleground states (where the vote was decided by 0-5%), whereas there were only half that in 2004.  The dwindling number is only a sign of the aftereffects of polarization, which appears to have penetrated society at a geographic level.  How well did that work out the last time it happened in the United States?

So then, how to fix this?  Polarization may lead to an energized voting base for one side or for both, but it can just as easily discourage voters from heading out to the polls.  Nor does the trend of polarization seem even slightly inclined to change.  As such, the best way to help deal with this situation may be to change the very way people vote.  One way to do so could be to make voting compulsory to get everyone to vote, one way or the other.  Another idea, quite a bit farther out there, is to require people to pay to vote, but in such a manner that the second vote is four times as expensive as the first, the third nines times as expensive, and so on and so forth in a quadratic manner.  While some might point out that this system could easily favor rich people or lead to the buying of votes, Levitt points out that rich people already enjoy a disproportional influence over political events, and that if people are going to sell votes, they are going to be savvy financially and politically about it.  It would be a good solution to the sentiment of voters such as Lindsey Jackson, who feel that, "at the end of the day, money is more powerful than a ballot."  Instead money would be exactly equal to the ballot.  Maybe it would work, and maybe it wouldn't.  But it sure seems a lot better to me than letting the election come down to a single vote.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I read this, because it's a great counter article the one I wrote advocating mandatory voting. We identified a lot of the some problems with a polarized voting base, so I'm curious to hear your take on the mandatory voting suggestion.
    I was by far most skeptical about the idea of money paying for votes, because I think the idea of leveling the playing field with mandatory votes, so opinions of all demographics are heard proportionally, is a little more desirable than using money to codify the already skewed role of finance in our election.