As William Vaughan's wisecrack goes, “A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won't cross the street to vote in a national election.”
This thought-provoking quip exposes the absurdity within the problem of declining voter turnout. Readers will likely respond to this phrase with either instinctive or systematic responses. Instinctively, some will blame voters for their foolish and lazy nature. Alternatively, others will respond to this allegation with more skepticism. This dichotomy raises important questions in public discourse. Are the voters’ folly, lethargy and irrationality really to blame? Or, can there be another culprit?
In this article, arguments proposed by public choice theory are used to explain why voters are not simply apathetic about the electoral process. To begin, comparisons are drawn between voter and consumer behavior to demonstrate why apathy is not the only source of the problem.
Voters vs. Consumers
If consumers are uninformed, and unable to differentiate good from bad products, then competition in the marketplace will not lead to improvements in product quality. Producers will lack incentives to improve product quality simply because customers will not be willing to pay premium prices. The same is true for politicians and policies. Competition between political candidates will not improve the quality of policies if voters are uninformed. In both cases, our ignorance is incentivizing the negligence of policy and product providers (i.e., politicians and marketers).
However, it would be fallacious to claim that self-interest is unrequited by the public. Everyone has an ‘agenda’ of special self-interests! The public is self-interested in securing the ‘best deals’ in the market and the ‘best representation’ in politics. Meanwhile, politicians and corporations are self-interested in turning a profit and gaining power. The even more harrowing truth is that incentives in the democratic system are designed to reward self-interest! Importantly, there is a key distinction in how self-interest operates with voters and consumers. To understand this, one must simply apply some relative price logic.
In the market, you choose from either X or Y, if you choose X you will get X.
In the ballot box, if you choose X over Y, you may or may not get X.
If the majority chooses X, you get X. If the majority chooses Y, you get Y
Simply put, there is individual inconsequentiality for voters but not consumers. Logically, one can make a case to argue that voters are more vulnerable than consumers by accepting these premises. Individual inconsequentiality is problematic because it negatively impacts motivation. One important mechanism to explain this is instrumental (i.e., benefit to oneself from the functional use of a mean, agent or tool) and procedural (i.e., benefit depending on the actions of oneself) motivations. For example, a voter may vote simply because democracy is an instrument or tool to express one’s political preference. Alternatively, some voters may vote because of the need to fulfill one’s civic duty, participate in the ‘democratic process’, express allegiance or loyalty to a political party, or judge the moral superiority of one candidate. Irrespective of what motivates voters, the ratio of instrumental and procedural benefits is unequal when comparing voters with consumers.
In the market, instrumental and intrinsic benefits trade at 1:1. A dollar’s worth of instrumental benefit is worth a dollar’s worth of intrinsic benefit.
At the ballot box, a dollar’s worth of intrinsic benefit remains a dollar, a dollar’s worth of instrumental benefit shrinks to one dollar times the probability of one’s vote being decisive (i.e., one’s vote decides the electoral result because there is an exact tie among the rest of the voters)
The chances that your vote will be the deciding one in a national democratic election is nearly ~ 0. Most optimistic estimations suggest that there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of your vote being decisive. Thus, the relative instrumental to procedural benefits for voters is 1:10,000, which is drastically lower than the odds for consumers.
Here is a quick thought experiment. Imagine I have hidden a huge sum of money in a secret place. In which of the following two cases do you feel more motivated to find it?
I have hidden 1 million dollars somewhere. The clue to its location lies in this book here.
I have hidden 100 million dollars somewhere. The clue to its location lies in a random page of one book among 54 million other books at the Library and Archives of Canada.
The political attitude of many voters coincides with the latter case. The expected reward does not exceed the costs, so voters think it is not worth the price (i.e., reading through billions of pages to look for a clue). Often, it is not that voters simply do not care. Voters understand that their vote is individually meaningless. Voters are ignorant because acquiring political knowledge is not worth the time and effort since they do not expect a proportionate change in politics.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
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Skepticism vs Cynicism
Cynicism may seem like a logical response to the constant wave of bad news. We read headlines formatted in bold fonts and capital letters that shout about scandals, conspiracies, and unsolvable problems. We hear soundbites on television that fragment viewers and attack opposing networks. We follow tweets, and Facebook statuses that present oversimplifications of complex issues. Amongst all this sound and fury, it is tempting to adopt a cynical approach to politics.
It is enticing to respond with constant distrust and suspicion. One can easily become a critic who either throws rocks from the sidelines or disengages with the public debate altogether. This position requires very little creativity or effort. I urge you to take a different approach! One ought to recognize that so long as the government, media and business are run by imperfect human beings, we will feel disappointed and frustrated. Voters and consumers are not victims! We have the same imperfections and inadequacies as our leaders that are driven by their self-interest, ego, and greed.
To sum up, as George Jean Nathan once said, “bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” It seems that a voter who puts the power of their single vote in perspective, is truly informed and so most eligible to cast a ballot.
About the Author
Arash is a student researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Behavioural Business Research at Concordia University. He is interested in studying the cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of decision-making.