Sunday, November 05, 2006

Should People Be Rewarded For Voting?

A couple of weeks ago, Cynthia Crossen had a good column in The Wall Street Journal about why voter turnout has fallen in the USA. Basically, we don't vote as much as we used to because there is not as much in it for us. That certainly makes sense from an economic perspective, where we assume people act based on incentives. Here are some exerpts:

"Your forebears would be ashamed. In late-19th-century midterm elections, turnout ranged from 65% to 78%. For presidential elections, almost 80% of the nation's eligible Then, in the early 20th century, turnout began falling precipitously. By 1920, less than half of the voting-age population made it to the polls on Election Day.

A 19th-century man (in most states, women weren't enfranchised until 1920) could decide to vote on the spur of the moment, pick up a simple ballot from party headquarters and drop it at the poll on Election Day, where his like-minded neighbors would give him a cheer and perhaps a beer. No preregistration was required, no taxes, no proof of residency, literacy or even citizenship. If, like most people then, he was a party man, his vote might earn him a reward -- a small cash gift or even better, a job with the post office.

Election day was rowdy and festive, a thrilling climax to a political campaign that featured bonfires, barbecues, parades, torchlight rallies and passionate oratory. Politics were social and recreational at a time when there wasn't much other public entertainment.

But many people thought the political parties, which basically ran the elections, were too powerful and corrupt -- that the government should administer elections, and ballots should be secret so party leaders couldn't monitor their flocks' choices. Party symbols, like the elephant and donkey, would no longer appear on ballots, creating a de facto literacy test. The practice of rewarding loyal voters with cash on Election Day was widely outlawed. Competitive exams replaced patronage in awarding government jobs.

And citizens would no longer be able to depend on their party officials to vouch for their eligibility. Voters would have to register themselves in person, well ahead of the election, usually during working hours. Some states even required voters to register every year.

Other broad social trends also damped the electoral spirit. Americans were leaving their small towns, where social ties often reinforced their political biases. Candidates for office began using radio, rather than rallies, to spread their messages, making voters more passive. With the proliferation of other recreational activities -- spectator sports, vaudeville, movies -- Americans no longer needed to look to politics for escape."

Why Don't Americans Like to Vote?
Politics Are Only One Reason
October 16, 2006; Page B1


champ said...

it's a cinch, most people don't like to vote because they see nothing direct in it for them. That same statement can be correlated with several things we do in daily life.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the 19th century to now? How about some of the largest changes in voting eligibility: Women, African Americans, and 18 and up?

Cyril Morong said...

How does that affect the numbers? They don't include the whole population when calculating the voter participation rate. They only have number of votes divided by registered or eligible voters. So if more people are allowed to vote, both your numerator and denominator increase. The rate won't necessarily change.