In my last post, I introduced a significant policy change for Americans –– mandatory voting. This time I tackle why significant policy change is necessary.
The typical voter’s train of thought usually runs along these lines:
If I choose to vote—or not—that’s my choice and (potentially) my loss. Sometimes I just can’t afford to wait at the polls or spend the time learning about all the candidates and propositions, with the implications each implies.
But it ends there. The costs and benefits start, and end, with me.
Or do they?
Our society is made up of a wide range of groups with very different needs and aspirations, and therefore have different requirements of their candidates at election time. Thus, who actually participates has real material consequences in our community. So out of those who do choose to vote, who specifically is turning out?
It turns out that the skills you develop in school – the ability to collect information, to understand the role of government, and a general interest in our community – are also the skills needed to vote in an election. And college grads vote at a rate nearly double that of their non-college educated counterparts.
So what? Those who go to school are accumulating knowledge and skills to make tough decisions, in business and in the community. Why is it bad that they outvote those without a degree?
First off, only a third of Americans have a college degree, so statistically speaking, they shouldn’t be outvoting noncollege educated Americans.
More importantly, it’s not bad, per se, that college grads outvote those without a bachelor’s degree, but they are not representative of the entire country. They tend to be wealthier, whiter, and slightly more conservative than the average. Again, none of these descriptions is negative; rather they show how typical voters do not represent the general population.
Recalling the contractor metaphor mentioned last time, that every person can participate in the “renovation” of our political system, let me use this facetious metaphor to demonstrate: college graduate contractors want more windows in their house, while their noncollege graduate counterparts want stairs. If college grads are mostly the ones renovating the house, then not only will we struggle to get to get to the second floor for a lack of stairs, but we’ll cook due to the greenhouse effect of all the windows.
In our elections, these different voter groups have significantly divergent preferences, as seen in the trade, tax, or union policies each supports. But for the house to be well built and useful, we need to balance the use of windows and stairs. The problem isn’t that you, a single voter, are voting (or not) and seeing the benefits; rather, it’s that one group is dominating the system, and we’re all starting to cook inside.
But the tone of elections is just so negative, I don’t want to hear any of the trash tossed around from either side.
Politicians are becoming more extreme because of lower engagement with their constituents. They partially need to get people to turn out, but there’s also fewer people participating to moderate the conversation. It’s a vicious cycle.
As we descend below the 50% voting rate mark, however, serious legitimacy questions arise. For example, in the Declaration of Independence, many of our future founders declared that the government “[derives its] just powers from the consent of the governed,” a John Lockean principle which means that the government only has legitimacy through the express consideration and affirmation of its citizens. But if the majority (meaning more than 50%) of our citizens don’t participate in the choosing of our representatives, then do the representatives lack our consent, and thus the credibility, to govern?
We can think of it another way as well: In most governing bodies and business meetings, a minimum number of people must be present to constitute a quorum to make substantive changes. In the City of Los Angeles, for example, 10 of the 15 members of City Council, or 2/3, must be present to conduct business. Even if the 2016 Presidential election voter turnout rate of 60% were normal – and it’s definitely not – this is still well below the threshold required of many of the quorum requirements of government and private sector bodies.
One example close to home: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was just re-elected in the March 2017 election where he won with a whopping 81% of the vote…but only 20% of all eligible voters bothered to participate. I’m neither criticizing nor supporting Mayor Garcetti here, merely pointing to the fact that the number of contractors participating in the March “renovation” failed to meet any recognized quorum requirement.
So our elections, it could be argued, aren’t even legitimate because we aren’t meeting minimum thresholds required to change policies currently in place.
But we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
Because voting is a public good, which suffers from incredible free rider problems. We’ve all dealt with our fair share of free riders. We put in time and effort for something and then someone else swoops in to enjoy the benefits of our hard work without contributing to it.
Think of the last time you went to a fireworks show.
Ha! Yeah, right. No one pays to watch fireworks shows..
My neighbor buys the fireworks and shoots them off at their house or the local lake and everyone (including me and all my friends) in the surrounding area can enjoy their splendor. For free.
That’s a public good suffering from a free rider problem.
The issue is that even though we all enjoy a good display of exploding light, because we all know no one else will help pay for it, no one ends up buying them, meaning none of us get to enjoy the occasional fireworks show. Fireworks are now undersupplied and under enjoyed (though the fire department certainly has a different perspective here).
Voting has a similar problem. Due to many of the issues mentioned previously, people are foregoing their opportunity to participate in the renovation, presuming that the benefits will still come (the air will be clean, the streets paved, and quality education provided). But the benefits come less frequently and to fewer people, as seen in the increasing trends of inequality.
So if the system is known to be unrepresentative, is potentially making illegitimate changes, and even under provides the benefits it does create, can we do anything about it?
Yeah, we can.
The government is allowed to, and frequently does, intervene to prevent or mitigate a market failure. A market failure is when there is an inefficient allocation of resources in the free market; in layman’s terms, it’s when something is under or over provided based on typical business principles to seek a profit.
I refuse to buy fireworks because no one in my neighborhood will help cover the costs, so we all lose out. Due to free rider problems, a market failure occurs.
But the government can rectify that. Like when it broke up John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company monopoly in the early 1900’s into 30 smaller companies to compete with each other, our government can intervene again to alter our voting system.
The benefits to mandating voting are many and the drawbacks few. But that’s the topic for my next post.
 Myers, Andrew. “Trends in Voter Participation: A Primer on National Electoral Turnout and Comparison of Recent National Participation.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 1. How America Votes: Law, Process, and Voter Participation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 153-160. Print.; and
Marcelo, Karlo Barrios, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Why We Vote: Civic Duty and Voter Apathy.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 1. How America Votes: Law, Process, and Voter Participation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 173-188. Print.
 Franklin, Mark. Voter Participation in the United States versus Other Democracies.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 1. How America Votes: Law, Process, and Voter Participation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 153-160. Print.
 Marcelo, Karlo Barrios, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Why We Vote: Civic Duty and Voter Apathy.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 1. How America Votes: Law, Process, and Voter Participation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 173-188. Print.
 Jaitman, Laura. “The Causal Effect of Compulsory Voting Laws on Turnout: Does Skill Matter?” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 92 (2013): 79-93. Web.
 Ryan, Timothy J. “Trusting the Vote: Public Confidence in Elections.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 3. American voting systems in flux: debacles, dangers, and brave new designs. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 167-175. Print.