In Defense of Voting

The dissertation abstract and table of contents are available here, and the introductory chapter is here.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation addresses the infamous “paradox” of voter turnout, which asserts that it is irrational for individuals to vote with the intention of helping their preferred candidate win, since one vote is infinitesimally unlikely to affect the outcome of any large election. Building on the 2008 book, Free Riding, by political theorist and historian Richard Tuck, this chapter resolves the so-called paradox of turnout by explaining that individuals do in fact have a direct causal effect on the outcome of even the largest elections when their votes form part of an “efficacious set.” This new approach demonstrates not only how voting with the intention of helping one candidate over another may be perfectly rational, but also how it may be essentially irrational to abstain from voting when an electoral outcome is uncertain. The chapter goes on to discuss implications of this understanding of the instrumental rationality of voting for  election law and policy in the United States, and for our understanding of collective action problems more generally. (This chapter was published in 2015 as an original article in Election Law Journal.)

Chapter 2 considers the following question: What good is voting in a modern democracy like the United States, when available choices may seem hollow or meaningless, and where voting for representatives may be seen as a generally ineffectual form of political participation? This chapter explains how and why—even in a two-party system with candidates/parties that are viewed highly unfavorably—the instrumental benefits of voting could still be extremely high. A typology of motivations that lead individuals to abstain from voting distinguishes three typical attitudes: Indifference, Alienation, and Ambivalence. Indifference is most commonly associated simply with lack of information, while alienation raises more complex questions involving the rationality and ethics of voting for a “lesser evil.” The chapter also examines ambivalence in the face of conflicting political ideals or motivations, including dilemmas that arise when elections pose particularly “hard choices”—whether between perceived goods and evils, or between conflicting motivations to vote or to abstain. The chapter concludes with a discussion of contemporary democratic theory as it relates to the perceived benefits of voting under prevailing political conditions. (This chapter was presented as a paper at the 2016 conference of the American Political Science Association.)

Chapter 3 explores the costs of voting, which are divided into two main categories: “substantive” and “information” costs. Substantive costs—which include any and all administrative or logistical burdens on the act of voting—vary widely across the United States, but they are at least generally identifiable, and in theory controllable. Information costs are much more complex and contentious, as their assessment implicates long-standing debates about the political knowledge and reasoning abilities of the American electorate. For the most part, the costs of casting an informed vote have been assessed as extremely high, to the extent that many—if not most—citizens are often said to be incapable of voting competently. This chapter challenges that dubious assessment and instead demonstrates why the costs of adequately informed voting are relatively affordable, both in principle and in practice. Providing a new approach to the value of mass participation in liberal democratic theory, the chapter refutes arguments that higher substantive voting costs may be justified as a means of producing a more informed electorate. (A version of this chapter was presented as a paper at the 2015 conference of the Midwest Political Science Association.)

Chapter 4 discusses the constitutional design question of whether voting should be left as a purely voluntary choice for citizens of a liberal democracy, or whether it should be framed—and perhaps institutionalized—as a generally applicable civic duty. Beginning from a general analysis of non-instrumental motivations for voting, the chapter proceeds with a comparative review of the constitutional duty to vote and compulsory voting laws around the world. An argument is then presented, based on Rawlsian principles of equal justice, that electoral participation should be conceived as a civic duty in any liberal democratic constitution. This argument is vigorously defended against the more conventional approach that voting should be a voluntary civil right only, although some necessary limits on the duty to vote are admitted. The chapter concludes with a proposal for establishing a duty to vote in the US Constitution, and with policy implementation options to provide flexibility in administration and enforcement.

The full dissertation, including references, can be downloaded here. (References alone are available here.)