Friday, November 30, 2007

Selling Votes and Winning Elections

In keeping with my pattern of commenting on yesterday's news today, I just noticed that a couple of weeks ago, a New York University journalism class ran a survey to find out how much NYU students care about their right to vote. The findings indicated that two-thirds of respondents would gladly avoid the polls in 2008 if it meant receiving one year's free tuition. Roughly 20% were prepared to skip the next election provided that someone would, in return, give them an iPod touch. Fully half went so far as to say that, for a one-time payment of a million dollars, they would renounce the franchise for the rest of their lives.

Naturally, these unnamed students were immediately pilloried by the usual naïve idealists and compulsive good government types. One student, who apparently earned an A in Civics and an F in Constitutional Law, opined that "anyone who'd sell his lifelong right to vote should be deported." Fair enough; a million bucks would go a long way in Costa Rica.

I was that young once. There was a time, around my eighteenth birthday, when I know I would have turned down the million dollar proposal, even if it had been legal. Fortunately, the offer never came, because today, many years later and saddled with a mortgage, I would walk the earth a festering heap of self-loathing, bitterly cursing the starry-eyed teenager who had ruined my life.

It's not that I see no value in voting. Rather, I calculate the likelihood that my vote will prove decisive (approximately zero) versus the cash value of an iPod touch (greater than zero). And let's not forget that tuition at NYU works out to well over twenty thousand dollars per year. Sadly, there have been elections so dreary—such as Bush-Dukakis, 1988—that I would have willingly stood outside the polling place like a ticket scalper five minutes before game time, prepared to hand over my registration card to the first person to offer me a kind word and a twenty.

Anyhow, I do actually have a point here other than celebrating my own world weariness. As it happens, whoever put together the NYU survey doesn't know a lot about American politics. Given the low turnout rates among college students, you don't need to bribe them with iPods and tuition waivers. Next year, well over half the students in the United States will voluntarily forfeit their right to vote in exchange for not having to go to the bother of voting.

They have a point. Individual votes do not win elections. Indeed, given the fact that recounts nearly always provide results different from those originally reported, the sad truth is that we are literally unable to measure down to the level of the individual vote. In that sense, one's vote is, almost by definition, wasted. The problem, of course, is that large blocs of votes do matter, and if everyone stays home, the composition of government will be determined by only the most highly motivated, fanatical elements. Kind of like the Iowa caucuses.

This is what economists refer to as the collective action problem. It is rational for me to sit at home watching Oprah while everyone else does the heavy lifting, in this case educating themselves about politics and going to the polls on Election Day. But if everyone on my side makes the same decision, then my opponents will win and I'll be unhappy (unless I got that million dollar deal, which is both unlikely and felonious).

Somehow, then, both parties have to find a way to mobilize voters to engage in a behavior that, at least at the individual level, has essentially no chance of paying off. This is not an impossible task. Indeed, it is, more or less, what the GOP did with Christian conservatives back in the 1970s and 1980s, firing up millions of relatively inattentive voters with stories of libertine liberals and godless Supreme Court justices. The country has not been the same since.

It won't be quite that easy for the Democrats. They will be unable to imply, as the leaders of the religious right do, that casting a ballot is a mandatory service to God. One surefire way to galvanize political participation is to suggest that the Guy who will determine the fate of your everlasting soul is keeping track of the voter rolls. It also gets around the whole notion of a secret ballot. Unfortunately for the Dems, there's not much they can really do in that regard.

If you are a Democratic presidential candidate, this is a matter of no small concern. No Democrat has received a majority of the popular vote in over thirty years. In 2000, they blew an election in which they were perfectly positioned as the party of peace and prosperity. Four years later, they faced an unpopular president conducting an unpopular war and they still couldn't get over the hump. Yeah, I know, Gore and Kerry and hanging chads and swift boats. Still, it should be clear that given the electorate as it currently stands, the best the Democrats can hope for is to win yet another nail biter. Or to run against Bob Dole again.

Appeals to patriotism and civic virtue are surprisingly effective at getting people to the polls. But they're not very relevant in this case. Those who can be won over by such arguments already have been, and they vote habitually year after year. Further nagging will not increase their numbers appreciably.

The Democrats' best hope for mobilizing voters rests with three sympathetic groups that have histories of relatively low turnout: Latinos, poor and lower-middle class Americans (including millions of African Americans near or below the poverty line), and citizens 25 years old or younger. As any political science major could tell you, there are myriad reasons why individuals in these categories fail to show up at the polls on Election Day. Even the most successful mobilization effort will likely result in a payoff of maybe two or three percent higher participation. But that would have been decisive in 2000 and 2004, and it might even have made Dukakis competitive in 1988.

Voters, of course, cannot be mobilized without incentives. Since the threat of eternal damnation has already been used, the Democrats will have to be a bit more creative. Tomorrow, I'll talk about the implications of all this for Hillary, Barack, John, and the rest of the Democratic field.

1 comment:

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