Why We Vote

For years, some economists and political scientists have scratched their heads in bewilderment at what they call "the paradox of voting," which states that going to the polls is a profoundly irrational act. If the only reason we do anything is because the material benefits of an action outweigh its costs (an assumption embedded in this theory, among others), there's no reason at all to vote. The odds that the election will be decided by one vote -- and therefore your vote will be decisive -- are vanishingly small. Therefore, whatever benefits you will derive from your favored candidate's policies must be multiplied by that infinitesimal chance that your vote will decide the election, to ascertain the return on the investment of voting. On the other side is the effort, time, and possibly the expense of walking or driving to the polling place, or filling out an absentee ballot. No matter how you calculate it (and many intrepid scholars have tried), the costs clearly outweigh the benefits.  

And yet, people do vote. Therein lies the "paradox," which is what it looks like if you inhabit the soulless world of homo economicus. People reorganize their schedules, wait for hours in line, and otherwise act outside their narrow self-interest to cast votes they know will not affect who wins and loses. So on this day, when over 100 million of us will pull levers, fill in bubbles, or push buttons on a touch screen to register our choice for the next leader of our nation, it's worth taking a few moments to reflect on the meaning of the vote.

We vote today in ways that are profoundly different than Americans did in previous eras. In the nineteenth century, voting was an act of party loyalty, and a highly public one at that. The parties printed ballots with their candidates written in, and your role as a voter was to take one and put it in the ballot box, often under threat of violence or in exchange for payment, in cash or alcohol. Different parties' ballots were sometimes printed on different colored papers, so there was no mistaking a voter's choice. Progressive Era reforms led to the secret ballot, transforming voting from a public proclamation of loyalty to a private choice. Voting became not something one did in full view of one's community, but in silence and alone.

Indeed, it became an almost sacramental act. In today's polling places, voices are hushed and movements slow, and we move toward the altar of the booth until we are finally alone with our selections. But though our choices may be private, election day itself is one of the few occasions many of us have to gather with our community. On the others -- sporting events, concerts, watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July -- we come together as spectators, observing the action but not participating in it. And unfortunately, spectatorship characterizes much of our contemporary engagement with the world. But on election day, we gather to act. We look around at our neighbors and know that at that very instant, millions of other Americans are doing the same thing. At that moment we are something extraordinary: we are citizens.

If recent history is any guide, this election day will be replete with problems, as the incompetence and inadequate preparation of election officials meets the profoundly un-American efforts of some to prevent certain people from voting. That's not to mention the question of whether the votes will be accurately counted. (Election day fun fact: Thomas Edison, the greatest American inventor, secured his first patent in 1869 for the Electrographic Vote Recorder, which he hoped would be used to tally votes in Congress. The august members of the nation's legislature were uninterested in such newfangled whizz-bangery, and Edison vowed never again to waste his time on an invention with so little commercial value.)

There are plenty of other reasons to forget what is moving and inspiring about election day. Those of us who find politics endlessly fascinating have few illusions about the limitations of leadership or the motivations of political actors. The outcome may or may not be the one we desire, but any president will eventually disappoint those who voted for him or her -- thus has it always been, and thus shall it ever be. There are too many battles to be fought, too many opportunities for what some will view as unnecessary compromise, too many chances to fail. Only the deluded will look back on a president's term as a source of unconditional joy and pride.

But at the moment of election day, the disappointments are in the future, their arrival seemingly uncertain. The hope, on the other hand, feels as real as the sun that rose this morning. It can stir our souls and move our feet. The hope of what may come invests the small act of voting with the weight of the future and all its possibility.

So at least for a day, we can remove the heavy cloak of cynicism that covers us for the rest of the year. For a day, we can revel in our own participation, and feel ourselves not subjects but citizens, the very embodiment of the democratic promise. For a day, we can indulge our fondest hopes, we can expect that new leadership will transform our nation, we can ask "Why not?" to what we want our country to be and believe that the question will be answered. There will be plenty of time later for doubt and disgruntlement.  

If you have children, take them to the polls with you. Remind them that for most of human history, people had no say in who would lead them, that violence and fear determined who controlled the institutions of power. Tell them that even in our own country, founded on the most noble of democratic principles, people have had to labor and protest and fight and even die to secure this right for themselves and for others. Tell them that there are many things you can do to exercise your citizenship, but this is one thing you must do. Tell them that election day is when you act not for yourself but for your community and your country. Tell them that although campaigns can be small and mean, election day is when our nation can also be bound by hope. 

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