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 completely irrational for individuals to vote with the intention of helping their preferred candidate to 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 how individual votes can in fact have a direct causal effect on the outcome of even the largest election. This not only demonstrates how voting to help one candidate over another is perfectly rational, but also how it may be essentially irrational to abstain from voting whenever an electoral outcome is uncertain. The chapter goes on to discuss how this new approach to the instrumental rationality of voting has important implications for election law and policy in the United States, and more broadly for our understanding of collective action problems in general. 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, given that available choices may seem hollow or meaningless, and voting for representatives is often seen as an ineffectual form of political participation? This chapter explains why—even in a two-party system with candidates/parties viewed highly unfavorably—the instrumental benefits of voting should be seen as extremely high. A typology of motivations leading 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 deeper issues involving the rationality and ethics of voting for a “lesser evil.” The chapter then 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 democratic theory relating to the perceived benefits of voting under contemporary 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, divided into two main categories: “substantive” costs and “information” costs. Substantive costs—which include any administrative or logistical burdens on the act of voting—vary widely across the United States, but they are generally identifiable and fairly controllable. Information costs are 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 exceptionally high, to the extent that many—if not most—citizens are thought to be incapable of competent voting. 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. By delineating 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. An earlier version of this chapter was presented as a paper at the 2015 conference of the Midwest Political Science Association.

Chapter 4 discusses whether the decision to vote should be left as a purely voluntary choice for citizens of a liberal democracy, or whether participation in elections should be framed—and even institutionalized—as a generally applicable civic duty. Beginning with differing ideas about this type of non-instrumental motivation for voting, the chapter proceeds with a comparative review of the constitutional duty to vote and compulsory voting laws in democracies around the world. It then presents an argument, based on Rawlsian principles of equal justice, that voting should be not just a civil right under a democratic constitution, but a civic duty as well. This assertion is vigorously defended against the conventional arguments for voluntary voting. Although some limits on a duty to vote are nevertheless admitted, the discussion of implementation shows there is much room for flexibility in administration and enforcement. The chapter concludes with a proposal for establishing a duty to vote in the United States.

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