Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Vote? Because it matters, dumbass.

Steven D. Levitt can  bite my ass.

In his book, Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, the "rogue economist," includes a piece called "Why Vote?" from November 6, 2005.  In it he argues that any given vote does not really matter, since very few elections are decided by small margins anyway.  He then goes on to mention the 2000 presidential election:  "It is true that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of voters; but their names were Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas.  And it was only the votes they cast while wearing their robes that mattered, not the ones they may have cast in their home districts."

He then posits three reasons for voting: 1) people are not very bright; 2) people tend to view the vote as a lottery: "you buy the right to fantasize how you'd spend the winnings -- much as you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy."  3) people vote out of some sort of civic pride.

He goes on to rather cavalierly dismiss the effect of large numbers of the population opting not to vote, analogizing it to telling your daughter not to pick flowers because if everyone did there would be no flowers left.

He also talks about the experience of the Swiss, who experienced a decline in voting rates following the move to all-mail voting.  In the end, he concludes that people vote because of social pressure to b e seen at the polls.


Firstly, he ignored a much more relevant example than the Swiss:  Washington State, which since 1997 has had vote-by-mail in all counties but one.  In 1996 general Presidential election, the turnout for eligible registered voters was 54.77%.  In 2000, it was 60.7%.  In 2004, it was 66.9 %.  In 2008 it was 66.5%  Even taking into account that the three latter elections were more hotly contested than 1996, it is still a marked improvement in turnout.  It is certainly not the case that, at least statewide, voter participation decreased.

Secondly, and much more importantly, whenever you are analyzing elections results, the issue is not just what the effect that individual votes cast have, but those that are not cast.  Until 2007, Florida did not allow anyone who had ever been convicted of a felony to vote.  Ever.  Given that a sizeable proportion of those (primarily) men were African-Americans, who tend to vote more heavily Democratic, that would have affected the outcome of the race.  And that is without taking into account the "purge list" of 173,000 names used by Florida officials to disenfranchise people who, it turned out, were only guilty of misdemeanors.  Hasty efforts to return individuals to the rolls before election day were imperfect, at best.

Those four men and one women were only allowed to determine the outcome of that 2000 election because so many people down the line had not been given a voice.  Ask any of those people how they felt about being not allowed to vote, and my hunch is a lot of them were outraged.

Ask any Proposition 8 proponent -- or opponent -- whether their vote "had some impact on policy."  Damn straight it did.  And this also completely ignores the effect on local races, which turnouts affect even more heavily.

Voting matters.  For all of us.  There is a reason why so many people have fought -- and in some cases, died -- to secure that right.  And it is not just so their neighbors will think well of them.

Elections are like streams.  They are chaotic systems.  Yes, removing one drop of water from the stream may not have an effect, but as you remove more and more, the stream changes course and power.  Since no one droplet can be identified as determinative, but removal of too many of them is disastrous, then each of them must be considered crucial.

It is hard enough to get people to vote.  (Especially young people; and two of the people who lauded this book to the skies to me were under twenty-five.)  The last thing we need is some "rogue economist" effectively dismissing its importance.


  1. Ask anyone who may have health problems that will be helped by Arizona's medical marijuana laws - which passed by something like 4300 votes. Those votes counted, every single one.

  2. Yep. That's a small margin in a state-wide election. This whole argument made me so spitting mad I just didn't know what to do.