Non-Voters in USA Elections

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Non-Voters in USA Elections

On August 15, 2007, the topic of voter turnout and compulsory voting came up on a mailing list. Here's what I wrote about that.

My opinion is that compulsory voting is a terrible idea. Forcing people to vote who are not interested or informed will result in a random-ocracy. Or worse, prejudice-ocracy, with people entering the voting booth with no preparation and voting based on "nice-sounding" names. In "Johnson vs. Gonzales," for example, with no other information, I bet Johnson wins in most of the USA. Or vice-versa, doesn't matter, it's still bad.

I think the low voter turnout in the US is another form of representative democracy: people who don't vote are, in effect, turning their votes over to the people who do. Their non-voting has this result because it makes other votes proportionally more powerful. This isn't bad or wrong. It can be a sound personal economic decision to say "It's not worth it for me to pay attention, educate myself, decide, and vote: on average, I am willing to trust the decisions of the people who are willing to do those things."

I think this attitude is what led to George W. Bush getting the majorities he did in 2000. The campaign targeted key districts and states and got the votes of people who would otherwise not have voted at all. In an election, you can basically count on the votes of your party's "base" and you can count on losing the votes of the other guy's base, and you can figure a bunch of people will just stay home. The folks in the middle are what we in the US "swing voters," the ones no candidate can count on, the ones who actually need to be persuaded to vote for your guy instead of the other guy. In addition to trying to get the swing votes, the Bush 2000 campaign was able to bring out enough previously-non-voting people to get majorities in key places.

(I'm leaving technical problems in Florida and the Supreme Court out of it for the sake of this discussion, OK? The strategy I'm discussing is what made the election close enough for those things to matter.)

A corollary to the kind of non-voter thinking described above is when a potential voter thinks "Things won't be vastly different regardless of who wins, they're all OK with me/equally bad/about the same, so I won't bother to vote." If you think all of the likely winners will take the country in roughly the same direction (for better or worse), that also diminishes the perceived value of your vote and makes you more likely not to bother.

Of course, in 2000, it made all the difference in the world. I do not believe Al Gore's winning that election would have stopped or changed what happened on 9/11, but I do believe that, geopolitically, every single day since that one would have been completely different.


This page was last edited April 26, 2008.