I usually refrain from chiming in on the affairs of the day, both for lack of time and because today’s news — as even the most committed news junkies would have to realize with the benefit of hindsight — are usually just tomorrow’s background noise. This holds particularly true in the political realm, and especially when it comes to election campaigns. If I were to adhere by my principles, the recent elections for the European Parliament should be an absolute no-go for me. My excuse is that I won’t comment on any party, politician or slogan, but on a more general argument.
(But what the heck were people thinking when they designed the cheap MAGA ripoff “Make Europe Great Again”? Whatever.)
It goes like this: To signal that you have truly grasped both the meaning and the importance of the democratic process, you’ll announce (no later than two weeks prior to any given election, and to anyone who cares to listen) that our brave forefathers have suffered and, at times, died, for the privilege to cast our ballot; that making use of this privilege is the very least we can do to honor their sacrifices, and that the very fabric of our society hinges on high turnouts. Not feeling represented by any party’s program, being unable to spot meaningful differences in outcomes between the most likely coalitions’ programs, or pointing out the mathematical insignificance of any one vote will not be enough to let you off the hook. In fact, outcomes play only a secondary role in this argument. Instead, democracy enthusiasts will usually be happy to encourage you to vote no matter what — “It doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you vote!” -, citing, variously, the waning support for the republican model, the rise of far-right parties, or any other undesirable thing that could potentially be fixed at the booth. To wit: A simple Google search — which, as we all know, can replace any carefully designed, controlled experiment — churns out some 1,170,000 results for “as long as you vote”, which, oddly enough, is the same number you get for “vote republican” (but higher than the result for “vote democrat”).
(Yes, this is uncharitable to the extreme, but I’ll try to make up for it later.)
My Facebook friend list features enough people from different countries to fill my feed with updates on elections pretty much year-round, so I get to see variations of this argument quite often. Bur rather than getting used to it, I just find it more and more bizarre. This has nothing to do with a disdain for democracy — although my enthusiasm for it is probably more restrained that that of the average blogger — and everything with the kind of blissful ignorance vis-a-vis results that’s so characteristic of politics. I don’t think that collective decision-making is inherently a good thing, worth carrying out for its own sake. To me, democracy is our escape from regicide and bloody revolutions, and while it isn’t terribly hard to come up with myriads of ways to improve its performance, it’s close to impossible to consistently ensure it. A benevolent dictator could probably fix a bunch of coordination problems that block the road towards the brotherhood of men, but then again, he might also turn out to be a tweeting maniac who’d readily put his personal whims above matters of international significance.
In other words, I root for (liberal) democracy because the outcomes it generates are the best we can reasonably hope for. But this very statement implies some obligation to worry more about results than about participation. To lend empirical support to Godwin’s Law, let’s consider the German elections in July 1932, which were among the last free and fair elections in Germany before the Nazi rise to power. Voter turnout was 84.1% — a number it would never reach again in a reunified Germany — and the NSDAP secured a whopping 37.3% of the total vote, thus becoming the largest party in parliament for the first time. Under these circumstances, would any sane person have approached a random non-voter and urged her to vote no matter who? As far as I’m concerned, if I had reasons to suspect she was a Nazi sympathizer, I’d have supplied her with plenty of reasons to stay home on election day. And I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same today for anyone who hasn’t made up their mind between not voting and voting for a party that threatens the foundations of a relatively free, relatively liberal Europe.
(I’d speculate that non-voters are more likely than not to be dissatisfied with the establishment, thus being easier prey for radical agendas. Case in point: The last election before the Machtergreifung, in November 1932, saw voter turnout fall to 80.6%, with the NSDAP losing 34 of their 230 seats. Yes, I’m cherry picking here.)
Having proven beyond a doubt that anyone who encourages people to vote without knowing which candidate they would support basically wants to give the Third Reich another shot, I could rest my case here. I’d guess you get away with this if you’re a political pundit, but yeah, it’s a bit too easy a victory. As wiser folks than me have argued, if you can’t even fathom why someone would hold this view (short of being stupid or malicious), you probably haven’t tried to understand their position enough. And so decided to humbly retreat from my grandiose claim and try to discern what why people become card-carrying members of the League of Concerned Voters. I can think of the following reasons:
- “It doesn’t matter who you vote for” is merely a catchphrase that makes you feel good for being on the right side of things. You also get bonus point for open-mindedness. On this account, “as long as you vote” isn’t to be taken literally, and should in fact be appended by “for a party that’s ideologically not too far from my team”.
- Because of social stratification, the potential voters you’ll talk to will already be very close to you politically, and you know this. If you’re a left-of-center, ecologically-minded, socially liberal citizen, your friends and followers are overwhelmingly going to come from that very same corner. Say half of them don’t vote because they’re too lazy, or can’t make up their mind between a few equally uninspiring establishment parties. By shaming them for their reluctance, and pointing out that their behavior will lead to gains for the xenophobic block, you escape the charge of outcome-blindness that I made earlier on.
- There’s some sort of vicious cycle involving non-voting and rejection of democracy, as in: You don’t vote, this makes you feel like you don’t have a say in the collective decision process, which lowers your respect for democracy and decreases your sense of civic duty, which in turn makes it more likely that you don’t vote in the next election either, and probably pass on this attitude to your children,… et cetera ad infinitum, until there is enough popular support to fund a giant experiment that would raise the Kaiser from the dead and reinstall him as the absolute monarch.
- Connected with (3), it might be desirable in and by itself to represent the citizens’ viewpoints as faithfully as possible. This doesn’t quite work if the largest faction are the non-voters, as it’s the case in most modern democracies. In the extreme, that would mean it’s better to get a 100% turnout, resulting in the absolute majority for some crazy extremist party, than to get the usually mixture of diverse interest groups at half the rate. Maybe people who emphasize turnout over results don’t ever expect something like this to happen (and they might be right), so the danger is purely hypothetical. Or maybe it’s better to have the crazy party in parliament, under public scrutiny and subject to the usual constraints on political actors than risk a violent uprising, led by an army of disenfranchised voters. Or maybe voting for the extremists sends a more valuable feedback signal to politicians than not voting at all, which doesn’t really reveal any information about whether you’d like to see the Berlin Wall rebuilt, or you were just hanging out at the beach and forgot that it’s election day.
- Lastly, you might consider a model in which everybody’s voting behavior depends on everybody else’s, with a lot of positive feedback loops thrown in. If I don’t vote, this makes it somewhat less likely may friends and relatives will vote, which — depending on how much of an influencer I am — may or may not be important for the final count. In this case, I don’t literally have to find elections that were swung by one vote, but only some that were close enough for these networks effects to matter.
As far as I can tell, (1) — the least sophisticated approach — would probably be true for most people because, honestly, who really spends that much time to think about political slogans and their implications? I’d like to convince myself otherwise, but then I go and check all these pages where they tell you why you should vote and they all just sneak in things like vote to pass basic income legislation or vote to get more federal money for your region to hire more teachers and security guards and invest in local infrastructure or vote to expand Medicaid or vote to increase funding for public colleges and universities … you get the point. And while this is a pretty left-liberal selection, I’m sure you could easily find the same thinly disguised “Don’t waste your vote” pages that start out by emphasizing the importance of the voting act for a functioning democracy, only to later tell you that it’s your patriotic duty to vote in order to kick off some new military adventure or protect religious values or lower your taxes.
But even in the best case — any combination of arguments (2)-(5) — I remain skeptical. Without going too much into detail, here are some considerations that shouldn’t be casually dismissed:
- There are many more important, but also more time-intense ways to strengthen civil society. Voting is “nice to have”, but the requirements for a functioning commonwealth — mutual trust, shared norms etc. — run much deeper than this.
- The whole spectacle around election campaigns could make people too enthusiastic about democracy, demanding that the majority vote replaces other, less centralized decision-making mechanism (i.e. markets or local governance of the commons à l’Ostrom). Usually, that’s not a good idea.
- Democracy, while designed to solve coordination problems, is itself a sort of inverse coordination problem. In the original case, you had a bunch of fishermen sharing a common lake. It’d be in the general interest to leave a certain number of fish in the pond so they can reproduce — otherwise, there won’t be anything to fish the next year. However, each fisherman, driven by self-interested, wants to take out as many fish as possible, which works just fine as long as all his colleagues limit their yield. Everybody realizes this, and they fish the pond empty on the day they arrive.
In this example, I, the Honest Fisherman™, want everyone to adhere to the same rules as I do (don’t overfish). In a democracy, I might well wish for the opposite: Convince people not to vote so that my vote matters more.
- Why this digression? Because all the time, I see people claim how unspeakably dumb you are if you think your vote doesn’t matter. If you look at them in disbelief, they’ll rattle off a list of elections that were decided by a small margin, such as (of course) the 2000 Bush v. Gore Florida recount (537 votes difference, according to the official statistics). This would likely be done to show the following: (a), there were cases where your vote would have literally been the tie-breaking one (Has this ever happened? Yes, but you have to look at some very exotic elections of debatable significance. Plus, one or two examples of this kind don’t replace a proper cost-benefit analysis that would have to factor in the likelihood of you being allowed to vote in such an election.) or (b), what if everybody did this? But since I can’t control everybody’s voting behavior through my vote, this version falls flat as well.
- I further note that even appealing to the (presumably) higher-than-expected weight of a single vote is rarely done on purely procedural grounds. Rather, it’s a way to remind fellow ingroup members that an election was lost because too many of us stayed home.
My takeaway from all this is that it’d be a lot more honest to just tell people “Vote for my party or stay home!”, but that, strategically speaking, appealing to a sense of civic duty that stresses the central role of the voting act might be the more efficient way to get your favorite candidate into office. Oddly enough, this implies that it’s far from irrational to write articles about how important voting is, no matter who you vote for (I just think they’re mostly wrong). Heck, if you’re one of those larger-than-life social media celebrities, even showing up at the polling site and throwing an empty ballot in the box (properly documented on the relevant channels, and without revealing your little secret) could motivate just enough people to vote to affect the outcome. Only where you actually put your cross — well, this is the one thing that doesn’t matter.