Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Myths of voter turnout

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 12:50 PM

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By John Guy

Commentators and candidates deplore low turn out of voters, such as for Indiana's recent primaries. Sadly for those who pontificate about voting habits, no person has offered proof that our democracy is threatened by low turnout, or that high turnout changes results.

Odds are small that voter turnout is important, or worth time studying or criticizing. Whether intended, criticism is personal; it is a charge that "you are not a worthy citizen if you do not vote." Like all personal criticism, the allegation does nothing to change personal habits or points of view. Instead, the allegation becomes a side show, a subject for commentators, including politicians, to fill air time and available newspaper space because they have nothing more important to say. Furthermore, if our leaders want high voter turnout, a few structural changes might do the job.

Voter turn out is likely to be unimportant because people tend to vote in groups, in predictable fashion. Sampling has proven effective in many contexts. Here is what Wikipedia says:

"In statistics, quality assurance and survey methodology, sampling is concerned with the selection of a subset of individuals from within a statistical population to estimate characteristics of the whole population. Each observation measures one or more properties (such as weight, location, color) of observable bodies distinguished as independent objects or individuals. In survey sampling, weights can be applied to the data to adjust for the sample design, particularly stratified sampling. Results from probability theory and statistical theory are employed to guide practice. In business and medical research, sampling is widely used for gathering information about a population."

Nielsen uses a sample size of 23,000 to determine the number of television sets tuned to specific programs. Using this sample, advertisers make major commitments, fees for advertising are adjusted, and television programs either are renewed or cancelled.

In theory, therefore, the result of an election could be determined, absurdly, by asking a small number of people how they would vote, and extending this tabulation to declare winners and losers. No one believes that this approach would work or is a good idea. No sample can be designed to adjust for all the variables in politics, and no one wants to eliminate the fact (or illusion) that voter participation legitimizes our leadership choices. All Americans, including those who do not vote, want to believe that majority rules, and that each citizen contributes to the direction of our nation.

On the other hand, for purposes of evaluating the legitimacy of our elections, I assume that those who vote are a reliable and accurate sample of everyone, including those who do not vote. I assume that 5,000 voters will arrive at the same decision as 50 million.

Another side to the alleged importance of voter turn out is efforts by political parties to "get out the vote," implying that a party can win if it gets more people to the polls.

If this principle is valid, political parties are better off during periods of low voter turnout because they do not need to work as hard to determine results. The hypothesis is irrelevant, however, because political parties must give supporters something to do. Asking volunteers to canvas door to door fulfills that need, even if the effort is zero sum and pointless.

If we believe that massive voter participation is crucial to our (fragile?) democracy, simple reforms will do the job. First, designate one or two Sundays each year as national voting days, and require employers and retailers to close for all or part of the day. A second idea is to create electronic voting from home. Television shows such as "Dancing With the Stars" appear to have proved that nationwide electronic voting, by telephone and personal computer, is feasible and accurate. Other tweaks might help, such as extending voting hours, creating more voting places, promoting early voting, and giving a small tax credit to those who vote. Consensuses in favor of any of these reforms do not exist, and each has been proposed since George cut down his cherry tree. If action reflects the true beliefs and desires, our society does not want large numbers to vote. The subject is useful, however, in padding the air with pontifications, such as mine.

John Guy is a wealth manager and author of "How To Invest Someone Else's Money," and "Middle Man, A Broker's Tale."

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