Thursday, November 11, 2010

A vote and a prayer

Courtesy of the Dish, a look at why people vote from YouGov's Ryan D. Enos and Anthony Fowler:
Amazingly, turnout is negatively correlated with the perceived chances that one vote will make a difference—meaning the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote.

If citizens realize that their vote won’t affect the electoral results, why do they vote at all? Is it the sticker?—In a way, yes. Citizens receive extrinsic benefits from voting that are unrelated to the chances that their vote will actually matter. We spent the Election Day talking to voters in two Boston suburbs. We asked them all a simple question, “Why did you vote?” Two-thirds of voters first mentioned extrinsic benefits while only one-third mentioned their concern for the results of the election.

“I always vote.” “It’s a civic duty.” “Many have fought for our right to vote.” “Voting gives you the right to complain.” These were the types of answers we received. Most voters made no mention of issues, candidates, or policies. When asked about whether their vote would change the election results, most acknowledged that the chances were low. Nonetheless, many held out hope saying, “You never know” or “The election could be close.” It appeared that most voters had never even thought of the chances that their vote would matter until we asked them, and some admitted so. This observation tells us a lot about why people vote. If forced to think about it, most voters know that they won’t change an election result; but they don’t care. They benefit from voting, regardless of the electoral outcome. Voters enjoy wearing stickers, expressing their views, fulfilling their civic obligation, and earning the right to complain. For them, that’s reason enough.
There's an aspect of my own thinking about voting that these answers don't really capture, though it may be implicit in some of them.  I am probably in the one third of respondents who would mention helping my chosen candidate(s), though of course I'm aware that the odds are infinitesimal that my vote will be decisive . Since 2004, I have also phoned voters in every congressional and presidential election from the comfort of my home computer. I think of this as supervoting: in a season of calling I may have  a dozen meaningful conversations with undecided voters (leaving aside GOTV and voter reigstration calls), and perhaps make a difference to a handful of them.

I know that these votes won't be decisive either. But. With the 2010 election just passed, when the headwinds were so strong and I so badly wanted to avoid making calls, an element of what pushed me on is fresh in my mind.  There's an element of magical thinking in it. I thought of my behavior as a kind of proxy: the more (or less) I forced myself to do, the more (or less) other engaged Democrats would also do, because we'd all be subject to the same psychological pressures. I was trying to will away the enthusiasm gap.
I think that there's some similarity in this to the way some people who pray think about prayer -- if their thinking about a personal God is at all complicated. The act is intrinsically beneficial to the doer and therefore must have some nebulous impact on the universe.  It's a participation in God's will -- not instead of trying to influence God, but in hopes that thinking correctly about what you want will somehow make it more likely to be what God wants too, and therefore more likely to happen. Somewhat sublimated superstition.

Maybe a vote is a prayer. It's certainly a gesture of faith. If I don't do it, who will? There's a mystery in participation.


  1. SociologistOnTheLoose!November 11, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    You mean people are not rational actors? Stop the presses! Tell the economists! No wait, don't.

    Anyway, "Voter" is an identity. Theoretically, assume that people act in order to maintain stable identities. Voting is the defining role associated with the voter identity. For those with this identity, /that/ we vote matters because doing so is necessary to maintain the identity.

    When does voting most strongly affirm the identity? When it "matters" least. The less we think our vote makes a difference in election outcomes, the more powerfully does voting demonstrate our commitment to the identity.

  2. something to consider:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be equal and counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the "battleground" states has been 67%, while turnout in the "spectator" states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: : CO-- 68%, IA --75%, MI-- 73%, MO-- 70%, NH-- 69%, NV-- 72%, NM-- 76%, NC-- 74%, OH-- 70%, PA -- 78%, VA -- 74%, and WI -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE --75%, ME -- 77%, NE -- 74%, NH --69%, NV -- 72%, NM -- 76%, RI -- 74%, and VT -- 75%; in Southern and border states: AR --80%, KY -- 80%, MS --77%, MO -- 70%, NC -- 74%, and VA -- 74%; and in other states polled: CA -- 70%, CT -- 74% , MA -- 73%, MN – 75%, NY -- 79%, WA -- 77%, and WV- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes -- 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  3. The big difference between voting and praying is that in voting there is almost always a definitive result while with prayer there hardly ever (if ever) is

  4. Why anyone thinks voting is a particular mystery is a complete mystery to me. Why do people vote...I mean, why does anyone do anything? At it's core, voting is a social action, and we are social animals who do social things like go to the movies, go see friends, vote, etc. That's about all to it that I can see.


  5. But Neb, going to the movies or seeing friends yield obvious pleasures. Maybe voting does for some, too, but the pleasure is not obvious, and therein lies whatever mystery we're batting around.