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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New York has Lowest Voter Turnout in the Country

According to a recent article in the New York Times, fewer eligible voters turned out to vote in New York than in any other state.  Minnesota, one of only six states where voter turnout exceeded 50%, recorded the highest turnout at 55.4 percent. 

In other countries, voting is mandatory.  For example, in Belgium (which has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the world) non-voters can be fined, and those who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may be disenfranchised for ten years.  In Peru and Greece those who fail to vote may be denied various goods and services provided by public offices; in Bolivia non-voters can be prevented from withdrawing their salary from their bank accounts for three months following the election. 

Would compulsory voting work here?  I think not.  Even if it would, compulsory voting assumes that low voter turnout is a bad thing.  But in some ways, isn’t choosing not to vote just as valid a political choice as choosing to vote? 

Posted by Ashira Ostrow on November 17, 2010 at 01:06 PM | Permalink


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Australia, from whom Americans copied the secret ballot, is a good model, but could easily be inverted to involve a benefit rather than a fine (indeed a fine might be deemed an invalid poll tax). From the link:

"The Australians brought in a system of compulsory attendance at elections in 1924. Voters are obliged to attend the polling station but can leave without voting after ticking their names off. Non-attendees face fines of AU$20-$AU50 (about £9 - £21) and possible imprisonment if they refuse to pay their fines (as punishment for failing to pay rather than for not voting). In a nation built on immigration, Australian supporters of the system say compulsory voting is a symbol of the integration of new arrivals into the Australian way of doing things."

Rather than fining and imprisoning those who don't vote, one could simply reward everyone who does vote with $10, for example. Obviously, this costs money, but it really isn't all that much relative to the costs already incurred by government to run an election.

The evidence from political science is that a lot of low voter turnout is driven by very slight inconvenience costs in time and money associated with the actual act of voting itself. Even a very modest prize for voting (which would not depend on the content of the vote or even on the completion of a ballot that actually cast a valid vote for anyone, just the turning in of a ballot) would probably dramatically increase voter turnout. The number of people eligible to vote who don't do so not out of lack of partisan preference but out of friction associated with the slight burdens of registering to vote and actually casting a ballot is illustrated by the large differences in turnout between Presidential and midterm elections, with the benefit of voting more clear in the former case than the latter.

People could still make a conscious political choice not to support any candidate (and Australians sometimes do just that, as do voters in "undervotes" in the U.S. which are high for downticket races), but this is theoretically and practically very different from not acting because the individual benefit from voting is not well understood and the individual cost involved in the act of voting is clear.

The general lesson of experience has been that marginal voters have systemically different preferences on matters of policy than committed regular voters, and that those views are expressed intelligently enough when people actually vote, particularly in partisan races where a very little information (who is the incumbent, which party does someone belong to) can make it possible for a large share of voters to make a decision. Undervoting is high in races where less information is available.

A consistent electorate, rather than one that varies in percentage of the public every two, would also make our politics more stable.

New York's low voter turnout may not be irrational, however. The problem is not that voters don't care about the result, but that in systems where one party is dominant, that the perception that your vote doesn't matter is accurate. Countries with mandatory voting also often have some form of proportional representation or preference voting that makes an individual in a local jurisdiction dominated by one party more relevant that it would be in an American style two party system.

One way to make elections more relevant and increase turnout would be to turn second houses whose purpose of representing geographical areas rather than population was made obsolete by Baker v. Carr into proportional representation bodies. Then, even someone in a Democratic party or Republican party stronghold would have a rational reason to vote and influence the statewide proprotion of their party in the state legislature's upper house.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 17, 2010 3:49:26 PM

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