Why people vote

Last fall I had a running argument with friends that voting ought not be made too easy because voting is an act of civic participation and therefore part of the fabric that binds a democracy together. People making atomized decisions in their living rooms are not participating in anything; they aren’t given the opportunity (or, perhaps, forced) to see themselves as part of a democratic society. The act of going to a polling place and voting in the presence of one’s fellow citizens, on the same day and in the same place, is as important to a democracy as the vote itself.

My friends thought this was ludicrous, of course. They couldn’t effectively argue with me, but it was clear they all thought I was nuts.

But now I have some evidence to back up my grumpy conservative’s misgivings. The authors of Freakonomics argue in today’s New York Times Magazine that many people see it my way, at least subconsciously. As an experiment, Switzerland recently tried mailing ballots to every citizen in particular canons. All the citizens had to do was mark their ballots and put them back in the mail. It was widely assumed that voter “turnout” would go up. But the opposite happened: fewer people voted than when they had to hoof it to a polling place!

Why would there be an inverse correlation between convenience and voter turnout? Because, the authors argue, civic participation may be the only incentive to vote. No individual is, realistically, going to determine the outcome of an election. The Swiss communities studied, though, strongly valued civic participation, and their citizens want to be seen voting to avoid informal sanctions. I would propose additionally that active participation in an election, through even something as minor as walking or driving to a polling place and standing in line with fellow citizens, gives a sense of personal satisfaction that mailing in an absentee ballot does not. Either way, it appears that people who value civic participation — the people who bother to vote at all, in other words — will be less likely to vote if you make it too easy for them.