A note on not voting

By Daniel Yearwood

Throughout the election season much has been said about the 47 percent, the 99 percent and the one percent. Little mention has been made of the 40 percent: the percentage of the United States electorate that are unlikely to vote in tomorrow’s presidential election according to a Suffolk University-USA Today survey completed in August 2012. Considered by many to be a citizen’s civic duty, the decision to vote is often taken by some as a foregone conclusion.

Why would such a relatively large portion of the US electorate choose to abstain from the democratic process which determines the holder of the most influential political office in the world?

According to the Downs paradox, named after Anthony Downs of the Public Choice school of economics, the costs of voting, which includes factors such as the time spent learning about each candidate, their positions and the potential implications of their policy recommendations exceeds the expected benefits of the single ballot cast for a rational, self-interested voter. The chances of an individual voter exercising the pivotal ballot in an otherwise tied election are miniscule, leading the rational, self-interested voter to abstain from the process altogether, particularly in a state that heavily leans toward a candidate from one of the two major parties.

Of course a voter living in a swing state has a much greater likelihood of affecting the election result and may view this fact as motivation to head to the polls. But in the event that the swing state voter finds the alternatives on offer equally unappealing, should a ballot be cast? Low voter turnout is often anecdotally interpreted as a sign of disenchantment with institutional features of a political system and the decision to not vote can potentially send as important a message as a vote cast for any candidate on the ballot.

Staunch advocates of voting often laud the act of voting as one of the bedrocks of modern democracy and frequently urge citizens to vote out of patriotism or posit it as a requirement for civic participation. Some suggest that a failure to participate in the democratic process deprives any subsequent complaints about government on the part of the non-participant.

But suppose the non-participant were to cast a ballot for a candidate who ultimately loses the election. Would the non-participant’s views have had more legitimacy had his or her candidate been the winner? If not, why would participation in the democratic process have been required to establish the legitimacy of the non-participant’s views if the legitimacy of these views is not a function of the outcome of the election?

To those of you that have already taken advantage of early voting or plan on heading to the polls tomorrow to cast your ballot; take pride in the exercise of your franchise. This is a privilege still unavailable to many in other parts of the world. But to those of you deciding not to vote tomorrow, whether through some cost benefit analysis of the impact of your single vote or because of your dissatisfaction with the available options, also take pride in your choice. Not only will you be part of a significant contingent of non-voters, but surely the judicious exercise of your right to vote includes the scope for withholding it.