Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Do People Vote (Or Not)? Part 1: Definitions

It came up in the comments and discussion on my last post (and I indeed mentioned it) and I thought that a discussion of this topic would be fruitful for all.

(I realize that I didn't address the topic of Europe's readiness for a more ethnically diverse leadership. If you want me to do this, I will. I will say, though, that European societies have generally had limited success when it comes to integrating minority populations into their political systems.)

The topic that I want to address is expressed in the title to this post. It is a question that needs to be asked as we approach an election, already billed by some in the mainstream media as the most important in America's recent history.

What factors influence people's decisions in the voting booth? What do people figure they gain (or lose) by voting (or not)? Do people always vote for their sincere preference? If not, why not? Is voting rational? If not, why do people persist in doing it? If voting isn't rational and people shouldn't do it, is democracy just a cruel deception? Does voting represent a tacit assent of this fundamentally flawed system? If so, what should replace it?

It is to these questions that I will turn in a post (hopefully later this week).

First, though, perhaps some definitions and explanations are in order for those of you who are educated, but not familiar with the intricacies of voting theory, electoral systems and how voter behavior is studied.

Our Electoral System

In the United States, we use what is known as a simple plurality voting system. It is often also referred to as "first-past-the-post" (FPTP). What this means is that in any given race, the voter is allowed to pick only one candidate for each contested position no matter how many candidates are running. Having done this, the votes are counted and the candidate with the most (the plurality) wins. As we all know, the U.S. presidential election is done in a two-stage system whereby the voters are actually voting for delegates who will vote for the candidates in the electoral college. The efficacy and fairness of this system is a discussion for another time.

This will have a bearing on the further discussion of how people make choices when voting and also the choice of whether to bother showing up on election day. It also (via an idea known as Duverger's Law) suggests why we (and most other countries that use FPTP) end up with a political landscape dominated by two major parties to the exclusion of others.

What do I think of this system? Let's just say that I think it has its advantages, but the disadvantages may outweigh them in the long run.

Rational Voter: Useful Concept or Oxymoron?

In having the discussion that we will have about how people form their voting preferences, we need to be clear about how we define "rational." How I will use it (and, in many ways, criticize it) is not perhaps the way you understand it.

In this case, rational is taken to mean the condition where a person always seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs. Rationality means that, in any given situation, a person will understand the options before them, understand the payoffs and costs related to these options and, having this information, will always make the decision that leave them with the best possible outcome.

This picture of a person as a self-interested, informed, strategic actor emerges from a branch of thought in the social sciences known as rational choice theory. Now, whether people are actually like this even some of the time will be part of our later discussion. I suspect, however, that there is some considerable truth to be gained from the idea of the rational voter, but ultimately it falls short of explaining the whole of voter behavior.

Why Should You Care?

I think the answer to this should be perfectly clear. I, for one, cannot help but constantly wonder why I do the things that I do and why others do the same (or not). Voting is one of these things. We are brought up from a very young age to believe that voting is our civic duty and that we must do it to have one's opinion on public affairs be meaningful. This relates to another term used by social scientists, political socialization.

I cannot help but wonder: why is this so? Is it because democracy needs the participation of the citizens? If not, why do it at all if your one vote is very unlikely to make a difference in an election? Is voting itself merely giving assent to a system that needs this sort of validation to continue? Do we really, despite our different choices of candidates, by voting merely give credence to a political system that is not what it seems (democratic)?

These are critical questions at any time, but they come to the fore during an election season where the supposedly rational voter is being barraged with images and propaganda designed to influence the decision-making process. My goal is to try and wade through some of this and get to the heart of the issue of why people vote and why does it matter.

Stay tuned; more to come on this later in the week.

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