Is it rational to vote?

Is voting a rational act? Is it worth the time and the energy it takes to go vote? Does one vote really make that much of a difference?

As noted in a previous "Question of the Week," voter turnout has been steadily declining for the past few decades. Political scientists and other observers have speculated widely about the cause of this trend. Two of the most common explanations are contradictory: people have become cynical about government or, alternatively, people are generally satisfied with the way things are going so they don't feel powerfully motivated to participate.

In a search for the cause of low voter turnout, it is important to note that the recent dip in voter participation is not even across all demographic groups. We know for example, that young people (age 18-24) vote less than those in other age groups. Seniors typically have a higher turnout rates. People with high levels of education tend to vote more than people with less education. Income is another factor--as one's income increases, so does the likelihood of voting.

All of these "explanations" notwithstanding, it is still possible to be left scratching your head. Even as education levels and economic prosperity have increased in the United States over the past several years, turnout has declined. Why aren't more people voting? Is it possible that it's not rational to vote?

In the 1950s, Anthony Downs argued that analyzing politics from a rational perspective might provide needed insight about voting behavior. Downs began with the assumption that the political system is driven by individuals acting to pursue their own interests. He used a cost/benefit approach to explain why it may not always be rational to vote. He suggested that people might not vote because the costs of voting may outweigh the benefits involved. By costs, Downs primarily referred to the time involved in the voting process. It takes time to register to vote, so become informed and go to the polls on election day. The costs of becoming informed are the most significant because candidates are often elusive an issues can be highly complex. Downs further argued that the benefits received from voting are, for the most part, negligible. If a voter does not see much difference between candidates, or if a voter feels the chances are small that his or her vote will change the outcome of the election, then the effect of his or her vote is minimal.

Just because voting might be perceived as "irrational," however, does not mean people don't participate in other ways. Some scholars have suggested that voting is only one form of political participation and that citizens engage in a number of political activities other than voting--writing or calling their representatives or attending local political meetings. In these instances, citizens choose the issues involved. They may perceive that the impact of their participation in these kinds of activities is more significant than simply going to the ballot box.

While this perspective is helpful, it still does not address the question directly. Is voting rational or not? If it is not rational to vote, why do nearly half of eligible voters still turn out in presidential elections? Are they all irrational? The fact of the matter is that Downs' "calculations" about voting are overly simplistic. Voters consider factors other than the direct impact of their vote when they go to the ballot box. For example, most citizens recognize that voting is an essential component of democracy. Citizens may conclude that even if their vote is not likely to change the outcome of an election, it is important to vote to show their support for the political process and the political system. Indeed, a system of government by the people is legitimate only to the extent that people participate. The fewer the number of people that participate, the less legitimate the system of government becomes.

Downs' assessment is also limited in that he does not seem to account for the many instances in which a single vote or a handful of votes have been decisive in electoral contests. Widely circulated lists of votes decided by one person on the Internet include several legislative votes where one member of Congress tipped the scale (admitting states to the Union, keeping the draft alive, raising or cutting taxes, etc.). In popular elections, those in which voters select political leaders, there have been several narrow margins of victory. Some of the most notable include:

Every year, there are dozens of close state and local elections. When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine was elected to the city council by a margin of three votes. This is not an uncommon occurrence because there are fewer people voting in state and (especially) local elections and margins of victory (and defeat) can be very slim. In these races, one vote clearly makes a difference.

While the elections this week may not stand out when compared to other elections in history, some have noted that this is the first election in a long time where all three branches of government are at stake. The next president may have an opportunity to appoint several new justices to a closely balanced Supreme Court. While it may be difficult to take control of the Senate, Democrats would like to recapture the House of Representatives. Party control of Congress may also have an impact on the policy direction that either Gore or Bush will take as president. At the state level, the make up of state legislatures will also have an impact on the redrawing of U.S. House and state legislative districts that will take place as a result of the 2000 Census.

Is is rational for you to vote? That is a question you must answer for yourself. Is it worth your time and effort to register, to study the issues and go vote? Will your vote make a difference? Does your participation (or lack of it) have an impact on our system of government? These are questions you must ask yourself today and every day. Thomas Jefferson, though, was clear on the issue. He declared that the "price of freedom is constant vigilance." If our system of government is to remain free and energetic, people must participate. So GO VOTE!

Contributing Author, Shad Satterthwaite, University of Oklahoma