What are non-voters really like?

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Voter turnout in last Tuesday’s election was low. The precise figure varies depending the population of interest; among voting-age Americans turnout was approximately 53.6 percent, but when the population is defined as those eligible to vote the figure rises to about 58.1 percent. Although the election aroused intense feelings among those who took an interest in the outcome, it appears as though millions of Americans didn’t really care one way or another. But appearances can be deceiving. Today the Washington Post reported on a poll showing deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the election result among nonvoters, and yesterday a local news station in Portland, Oregon raised eyebrows with a report that a majority of anti-Trump demonstrators arrested over the weekend had not voted in Oregon and in fact may not have voted at all. It turns out that nonvoters may have been just as invested in the outcome as anyone.

Predictably, these stories are so far mainly providing fodder for lazy moralizing on both sides, a sort of political version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper for our times. If your memory needs refreshing, that’s the one where the ant works all through the summer gathering supplies for the winter, while the grasshopper wastes his time singing songs. But to make the analogy work, you’ve got to make some changes to the fable, so instead of one ant and one grasshopper, it’s a whole bunch of ants and grasshoppers. And instead of the ants reaping the rewards of their industriousness, more than half of them end up starving, while almost half of the layabout grasshoppers end up pulling through. Making the necessary adaptations to the fable turns the moral of the story on its head. It turns out the grasshoppers had the right idea; they were just as likely to survive the winter as the ants, and unlike the ants they had an absolute blast over the summer. Similarly, the finding that the non-voters were about as likely as Clinton voters to be dissatisfied with the result and about as likely as Trump supporters to be satisfied with the result implies that it’s the voters who are in some sense the real suckers. If voters are intrinsically motivated to vote, this implication can be avoided, but then the voters are merely no worse off than the non-voters. To incorporate intrinsic motivation, the fable has to be modified again so that working is as good for the ants as partying is for the grasshoppers. And now it doesn’t look like the fable has much of a moral at all.

So, non-voters apparently care about politics. Some of them are even engaged in riskier, more demanding forms of political activity than voting, such as street protests. Considered as a group, they also appear to reach similar conclusions about who and what is good and bad for the country compared to voters. And their behaviour conforms to a minimum standard of rationality — it is not irrational given their motivational set.

Perhaps there’s even more that can be said in non-voters’ favour, however. Low voter turnout is often regarded as a problem — a sign that people are losing confidence in democratic processes or institutions, say, or a lack of commitment to the obligations of democratic citizenship. Radical critics of actually existing democracy also sometimes speak as though failure to vote is itself a vote of no confidence in the status quo. But maybe a person doesn’t vote because they trust that the people who do vote will end up making the right decision. As it turns out, this trust is (from the perspective of the non-voters) normally justified. So given the momentousness of the choices available in many elections, the decision not to vote can just as easily be taken as a vote of considerable confidence in one’s fellow citizens, the quality of the candidates nominated for election, and the ability of the country’s political institutions to compensate for error.

To summarize, one can make a case that contrary to their popular image, non-voters are politically engaged rational optimists, and a high proportion of non-voters in the population should be taken as a sign of robust democratic health. Of course the evidence is nowhere near strong enough to justify outright acceptance of this characterization. But it is stronger than the evidence typically mustered in support of the stereotype of the non-voter as an apathetic, stupid, irrational cynic whose appearance heralds the unravelling of the polity. Anyone who shares the belief that voting is an important form of democratic participation and a matter of political obligation and not mere instrumental rationality should find this conclusion reassuring; it suggests that non-voters are not only open to being persuaded to vote, but that they’re the kind of people we would actually want to vote.

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