The Decision to Vote

Vote CountsI’ve written about Olivia Slocum Sage’s role as one of many people working over multiple generations to secure the vote for women, and noted that we will be exploring many implications of women’s voting rights as Russell Sage’s Women’s Institute opens in Fall 2020 on the centennial of the ratification of the nineteenth amendment and the first election in which women across the U.S. voted.

Over the last two years at Sage, in that spirit, we have initiated a variety of voter registration drives and consciousness building projects, and I like to think we played a small part in the increase in the voting participation of college-age citizens in the 2018 election.

As we near Election Day for this off-year election, it is worth looking at voting from another angle. Why people vote is a famous paradox in economic rational choice theory. The chances of an individual’s vote influencing an election outcome are so infinitesimal that it hardly justifies any effort, let alone the considerable effort people apply to it in practice. As it has been famously phrased, it is more likely you’ll be hit by car on the way to vote than that your vote will determine an election result.

The literature discussing the possible psychological drivers of the irrational behavior of voting is voluminous. It includes discussion of “civic duty” and how that is internalized. Some theorize that voting is a form of self-expression and thus offers value in and of itself. Others that voters believe that if they vote, others who think like them are likely to vote (the so-called “voter’s illusion”). Still other researchers see social pressure and the desire to fit in expressed in voting (thus the “I Voted” stickers). Altruism theory sees voting behavior as a prime example of something done for the good of the group or the whole rather than the individual. There are also, we must acknowledge, tremendous resources put into persuading people to vote in general and to vote a given way. Advertising influences behavior.

The civic duty assumption is so strong in our society that it almost seems scandalous to talk about voting as irrational, as economists do.

Indeed, if multitudes of people fought and died for the right to have elected governments and for suffrage for various groups, it seems fundamentally disloyal to democracy not to vote. In its tiny way, each vote is a form of coalition politics: you join with millions of others to make a difference in the world. Rationality might even suggest that rather than not voting, one might want to contribute in a way likely to multiply one’s influence. I don’t mean by voting twice, but by influencing others to vote or to vote a certain way (registering voters, driving people to the polls, working for a candidate, etc.).

I had these thoughts in mind as I signed on to a letter from the local League of Women Voters, Troy NAACP, Unity House, Troy Area United Ministries and the NY Civil Liberties Union in requesting an early voting site for Troy, New York. People who care passionately about democratic participation recognize that obstacles to voting negatively affect participation. Thus one way to have a multiplier effect is to work for improving voter access. New York State recently did that by approving early voting for the first time (beginning this November).

The new law requires at least one early voting site for each 50,000 registered voters in a county. For Rensselaer County this means a minimum of two. The County Board of Elections identified two and placed them in East Greenbush and Schodack. Many of us thought that excluding Troy, the county seat, the most populous area, with the largest percentage of people dependent on public transportation was a terrible mistake in expanding voter access. I signed on for these reasons and also because Troy is home to three colleges where students just eligible to vote live and attend class. Many other counties (such as Schenectady) opted for more than the minimum number of sites. Working with community organizations, we identified a potential Troy polling place and the funds to run it, but the board of elections still demurred.

The result is a new NY State Senate bill sponsored by our senator Neil Breslin that would require at least one early polling place be in the largest municipality of each county. We will see if it passes prior to the 2020 elections.

Involvement in this issue put me in contact with remarkable and dedicated voting rights experts, professional and volunteer. And that experience led me to think again about rational choice theory and the whole history of those who fought for votes: from the enlightenment revolutions spurning monarchies, to the fifteenth and nineteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, to the hunger strikers for women’s suffrage in Britain, to the history of suffrage and anti-apartheid in South Africa, to the battle over Jim Crow and voter suppression in America, to the extension of voting rights to anyone over 18 (occurring just in time for me with the twenty-sixth amendment), to the struggles that continue today.

It’s a remarkable history of collective action that depends on millions of irrational commitments to something larger than immediate individual gain. I don’t have the sophistication of a behavioral economist to answer the paradox. What I do know is that encouraging voter participation is intimately tied to what we do as educators by encouraging participation in the world and the community in an informed way. I see examples of activism and engagement among our graduates all the time, and it gives me hope for our next generation of students.

Chris Ames
President, The Sage Colleges