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By Steve Kelman

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Voting as an irrational act

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I needed to vote early this morning, because I’m teaching and then immediately leaving for Washington. I arrived at my small polling station in Concord, Mass., at 6:45 am, fifteen minutes before the polls opened, and there were already about 20 people in line ahead of me. I was able to vote quickly – done by 7:10 a.m. – and when I left the polling place, there were maybe 40 people waiting in line. (My younger daughter emailed me a little later in the morning that she had been waiting in line for an hour.) However, this is of course modest compared with the stories of people waiting 6 to 8 hours in line to vote early in Florida, for example. And I have already seen Facebook posts this morning about people waiting an hour in line or more.

The lines to vote are an interesting commentary – and critique – of two common and influential ideas from social science research and theory.

One is the idea of free riding. There is actually an academic literature about why it is irrational for any individual to vote. It is highly unlikely that an individual vote will determine the outcome of an election – indeed, even in the famous 2000 Florida case, there were several hundred votes separating the candidates. So, it has been noted, no individual should vote, but instead count on everyone else to vote. The paradox, of course, is that if everyone thinks this way, nobody will vote at all. We do know that people do vote, so the challenge for social science theorists has been to think about why people vote even though, from a self-interest perspective – voting has costs, especially with these long lines, and there is only an infinitesimal chance that an individual’s vote will elect their favored candidate.

The answer has to be some version of people feeling a moral obligation to vote and people feeling proud as individuals to participate in democracy. There is a larger point here. The theory that people will not vote because the self-interested costs outweigh the self-interested benefits reflects an impoverished view of what makes people tick – ignoring the role of moral obligations and attachments to a larger community. So these lines on election day actually tell us something about who we are as human beings.

The second idea that is dealt something of a blow by these voting lines is the psychological idea of habituation – put simply, the idea that everything gets old after a while. On this view, it is one thing when people in new democracies wait in line for hours to vote (I remember the footage of long lines when South Africa had its first universal suffrage election in the nineties), but after a while it loses novelty and hence attractiveness. Needless to say, Americans have been at democracy for a long time, so habituation certainly has had time to settle in. But there may be certain things we value on an ongoing basis, such that we continue to appreciate them even after a long time, sort of like a long-standing love as opposed to a first blush of attraction.

And this also may be something we want to pass on to our children: I overheard at the train station on the way to work a woman telling other commuters about how there was a first-time voter in line while she was waiting, and everybody gave her a big cheer.

Having said all this, it is of course also true that many Americans do not vote, that many feel cynical and jaded, that many are both self-interested and habituated. Today, though, let’s concentrate on those exceptions to social science theory.

Posted on Nov 06, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Wed, Nov 7, 2012

Paul V: God bless anonymous billionaires- they appear to be the only available counter to the news media who happily cover up the Fast & Furious massacre, the Benghazi massacre, and the politically motivated sponsored theft from GM bond-holders, and the rest of the long string of abject failures coming from the Federal Government over the last few years. Also, other commenter, you can always complain, regardless of whether you vote.

Wed, Nov 7, 2012 Paul V Maryland

Steve Kelman- We miss you. How do we get you back to Washington? This was a great post. Voting is critically important to our way of life. But how do we solve the big problem of unbridled accountable-to-no-one spending on campaign messages that are misleading or outright false? Anonymous billionaires are promoting agendas that damage our democracy. How do we stop it?

Wed, Nov 7, 2012

If you don't vote, you can't complain!

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 John Inman Ketchikan, Alaska

"There is a larger point here." So true -- I'm not just voting for my preferred candidate (even though the polls say my state is guaranteed% for Romney so my vote doesn't really count) -- in the larger point, I am sustaining the process, and to me it is the process that counts most. I'll accept the outcome of either candidate who wins according to the process, but if there are difficulties and if one candidate (either one of them!) brings in lawyers to overthrow the process, I will oppose whichever one it is. Indeed, to me, the process is more important than the candidate.

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