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A political scientist's case against voting

Voting in America
Voting in America
Andrew Burton/Getty

The message being bombarded at Americans today, by everyone from President Obama to Li'l Jon and Lena Dunham, is that you definitely, definitely need to go out and vote. Americans as a society have so internalized this message that voting's crucial importance is taken as a given; not voting is seen as something to be embarrassed about.

So I was surprised to learn that Phil Arena, a well-regarded political scientist and assistant professor of political science at SUNY Buffalo, chooses to abstain from voting. Arena, to be clear, is no head-in-the-clouds theoretician or wild-eyed revolutionary; he's a smart, reasonable thinker. So I asked him why he sees it as irrational for an individual person to vote. I have to say, I was surprised by how few counter-arguments I had to his case against voting.

Max Fisher: So why don't you vote?

Phil Arena: I don't vote because I don't feel any personal sense of obligation or satisfaction from voting. And my understanding of research on the topic is that the instrumental argument for voting — that is, voting in order to directly determine the outcome — doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

The instrumental case [against voting] is I think is easier for most people to appreciate. The outcome of an election is going to be determined by your vote with a probability somewhere in the neighborhood of one in a million or one in a hundred thousand if it's a smaller race, or maybe if you're lucky one in ten thousand.

And these are just really tiny numbers. So the argument for voting as an attempt to directly alter the outcome is one that's pretty easy to show just doesn't hold a lot of water.

I don't think that's why people do vote, so that's not the most important part of the conversation, but I do think that needs to be established.

MF: Why do you think people actually vote, if it's not to influence the outcome of the election?

PA: My understanding of research on this question is that there are many reasons. One of the best ones is that people feel that they should. They truly feel a psychological benefit of voting. Or perhaps, the flip side of the same coin, they feel guilt if they choose not to vote. So that's a benefit or a cost that's intrinsic to the act, independent of whether or not you specifically determine the outcome.

MF: The two arguments that I most commonly hear against voting are either, "I don't care about the policy outcomes" or "I believe that all of the candidates are the same so it won't make any difference." But you're not arguing either of those things. You do believe that elections have policy consequences and that those consequences matter. You don't vote because your individual vote almost certainly won't decide those consequences.

PA: Right, that's right.

MF: But if everybody thought that way and didn't vote then that would have a huge consequence on elections. Doesn't that fact demonstrate that the decision to vote has consequences?

PA: So the really important distinction here, which is a really hard thing to wrap your head around — even thinking about this for years, it still sometimes troubles me — is this disconnect between the individual and the aggregate. The point you make is exactly one that people do make, and my response to that is, "Okay, but everyone isn't thinking that way."

You're telling me that I should vote because if everyone stayed home that would be really bad. But I have absolutely zero reason to believe that everyone's going to stay home today. Absolutely zero; I would bet my life on it. To try and turn my action into the action of the aggregate is a sleight of hand. It's a clever response, it's actually what you ought to say to someone like me, but it just doesn't work that way. I know that I am not everyone in this country, I am me, and if I stay home, that's one fewer vote.

Now, that's slightly unfair. James Fowler has done some work using network analysis to try to estimate the second-, third-, fourth-order effects of individual decisions. And by his estimate, any one person's decision probably influences enough other people at the margins that, at the end of the day, whether you choose to vote or not probably sways six votes total. So that's significantly more than one, but six is not going to determine the outcome. It's just not.

MF: Is it something about your research and work as a political scientist that has given you this view of elections and voting?

PA: Yes. I actually did vote when I was a college student; I stopped voting when I went to graduate school in political science. I took classes in American politics and realized that the best explanations we have for why people vote are explanations that strike me as ones that ought not to create a compulsion to vote. I realized the best we could to explain why people vote is to say that they feel like they're supposed to or that they'll be judged if they don't.

MF: But people do good things for bad reasons all the time. Giving to charity is often less altruistic than we like to think it is, but the money still goes to a good cause.

PA: Right, the distinction I like to draw is that, when it comes to donating to charity, every little bit does make a difference. It's not clear at all to me that that applies to voting.

With voting, the country as a whole will be in a worse place if we abandon our democracy because nobody participates. But as long as we're above some threshold where nobody thinks that democracy is going to cease to exist in this country, it is not at all clear that anything becomes even a little bit better by Philip Arena pressing a button. But if I give even just $5 to some charity, that is a non-zero impact of some interest.

MF: Couldn't you argue that we've already crossed the threshold where enough Americans believe that voting doesn't matter or doesn't count that it's impacting our democracy? For example, there are certain demographic groups that have much lower turn-outs for a variety reasons but one of those reason is a lack of faith in the system. That lower turn-out often makes the difference in determining elections.

PA: My response would be that we can't undo that problem, if we think we do have that problem, by having Philip Arena vote.

If we think that certain under-privileged communities need to be voting at higher rates in order for us to be able to say with a straight face that we have a high-quality democracy, then why does it solve that problem to have an upper-middle class white male who happens to be heterosexual and highly educated and fully employed vote?

MF: Your comments make me realize how many people see voting as sort of a performative responsibility, where you're voting to try to signal to other people, "Hey you should vote, too" and we communicate this idea that's important that everybody votes by wearing stickers and tweeting about voting. Which is a weird way to think about why voting matters.

PA: No I think that actually is correct. There is some evidence that is why people vote and there is some evidence that it works to a very limited degree.

One really interesting study that was done a few years ago sent out a couple of pieces of mail to people in Michigan. The control group got a piece that said, "You really should vote because it's your duty." There were two treatment groups, the most interesting one got a mailing that said, "Here's a list of people who voted in the last election and we'll send an updated list after the election." So the threat, although it turned out to be an empty threat, was that everybody would find out whether their neighbors voted or not. And that had a huge impact on turnout, more than any other treatment in this literature.

So it really does look like people vote because they want other people to know that they're voters. They want to be able to declare proudly that they voted and I think that does move the decisions of others to a degree. But, like I said, our best estimate is that when you consider all those secondary and tertiary effects, that one vote probably moves six votes. That's an important finding, but I still don't feel that the outcomes that really matter to us are appreciably effected by my individual decision to vote or not.