Is Voting Rational?

By: Everet Rummel

We’ve all received that email about voting this Tuesday, the one urging us to “embrace and exercise that empowerment [to vote] as both a right and a responsibility.” NJPIRG similarly encourages us to vote by going so far as to solicit voter registrations on campus. Despite the efforts of many groups telling us all to vote, the rate of eligible American voters who actually vote has been declining since at least 2004. Is this a trend to be concerned about? As it turns out, refraining from voting is a perfectly rational thing to do given the high costs and low benefits. In fact, the real wonder is the fact that so many Americans actually vote at all.

A 2012 study by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that 60.4% of eligible voters voted in 2004, 62.3% in 2008, and 57.5% in 2012. Even if the spirited (first) Obama campaign managed to interrupt the trend and increase turnout, by the second time around it was drastically lower. If it is our civic duty to vote, a right which we are privileged to have, why are so few people doing so?

What’s wrong with voting? For starters, Election Day is held on a Tuesday, a work day, giving us the options of getting up very early to stand in line at the polls, take time off from work (i.e. not get paid) to stand in line at the polls, or delay going home after work to stand in line at the polls. Decisions, decisions.
If the mundanities of forgone income and leisure aren’t enough, add to that a bunch of highly technical issues with voting. First, it is highly unlikely that any individual’s vote will actually make a difference in a large election. Second, even if everyone believe their vote mattered and everyone voted, the notorious Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states holds that it is almost impossible to design a voting system that will accurately reflect the true preferences of the electorate. America’s electoral college voting system is particularly backwards in this regard; one need only to recall the controversy surrounding 2000 U.S. Presidential Election to agree.

Finally, voters are generally uninformed and fickle, which is to be expected. It is extremely costly if not impossible to become completely knowledgeable about every issue relevant to the welfare of the nation. Geopolitics, alternative energy, climate change, GMOs, epidemics, monetary policy, tax reform, comparative economic development, criminology, regression analysis; the topics and methodologies required to understand the issues at hand would require years of specialized education across multiple fields. Add to this the fact that we all have (or wish to have) jobs, families, social lives, and a dwindling amount of time available for leisure, it is perfectly rational to remain ignorant about most issues of importance (“rational ignorance” is actually the academic term for this behavior).

What’s more, people tend to vote based on preconceived notions, gut feelings, and instinct rather than the actual merits of politicians’ platforms. A growing literature within psychology finds that people tend to make character and ability judgements based on physical appearance alone. Candidates that look trustworthy and competent are trusted and promoted to positions of power.

Other studies show that many people simply vote based on party affiliation rather than facts. A 2014 paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, political scientists at Dartmouth University, found that when a Democratic president was in office, a majority of Democrats believed that the president could not do something to alleviate high gas prices while a majority of Republicans believed the opposite. Later, when a Republican was in office, the numbers switched; most Democrats said the president wasn’t doing enough about high gas prices while most Republicans said it wasn’t his fault. In fact, the president actually has no influence on gas prices at all, which are largely determined by international markets, but beliefs eskew facts, especially when the facts are expensive to obtain.

In sum, people vote in completely irrational ways with little regard for making an informed choice. The act of voting itself is perfectly rational — people often do it for non-economic reasons such as concern for social benefits — but so is the choice to not vote.


About rutgersobserver

The official student newspaper of Rutgers-Newark.
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