March 29, 2006

Mandatory Voting

Today's featured article in Wikipedia is about voter turnout. Did you know that in Australia voting is mandatory? They get 95% turnout, but I wonder how many of them make an effort to get informed and make a decision, versus how many just pick the first person on the list, or base their decision on some other arbitrary factor.

This is an interesting quote from the article:
In any large election the chance of any one vote influencing the outcome is very low. This causes a difficulty for rational choice theory, in that it seems that a rational individual should not vote. This is in part a "free rider problem", because in theory an individual voter can rely on the rest of the population to make a rational decision, without having to go to the effort of becoming informed, making a decision, and going out to vote. Studies using game theory, which takes into account the ability of voters to interact, have also found that the expected turnout for any large election should be zero.
Seems a little self-contradictory at the end... did they take into account that a turnout of zero might not be considered a large election? Still, it's interesting. Another point made by the article is that low voter turnout can be interpreted in more than one way. I think the more common school of thought is that a low turnout indicates disenchantment with the current system of government. But it could also be interpreted as contentment with any of the available choices in the vote, which is probably a more realistic way of looking at it. Abstaining from voting is essentially a vote for the status quo, after all.

What if we made voting mandatory in the US? Would it make any difference? I think if people aren't interested in voting, they're probably not going to do their homework, research the issues, and get informed enough to make a rational decision.

But what about the people who already stay informed, and simply abstain from voting as a sort of protest? I don't know how many people fall into that category, but I would guess it's not a big chunk of the population. If there really are a lot of people like this, maybe mandatory voting in the US would make sense. But I don't think so.


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