Stanford students’ efforts to encourage democratic participation, while noble, would be better invested elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, Senate candidate Gabe Rosen faced off against the villainous Emperor Palpatine in the Main Quad for a seat on the ASSU Senate. The lightsaber duel followed the invalidation of Emperor Palpatine’s Senate candidacy, which allowed Senator Rosen to gain the seat instead. The fight, complete with an appearance from the LSJUMB, was wildly popular. But the fact that more people seemed to be talking about the lightsaber duel than candidates’ policies or the election results is telling. Most of us just don’t care about ASSU elections.
Despite our lack of interest in campus politics, most of us believe that civic participation is important. We are raised to believe that voting is the foundation of democracy. Student groups like Stanford in Government (SIG) reflect and perpetuate these beliefs. At New Student Orientation and “We the People Day,” SIG members eagerly help students register to vote.
This divergence in attitudes towards elections at Stanford and for America raises a question: does politics matter? In most cases, probably not. Students ignore the ASSU because it doesn’t have much power and doesn’t affect their lives. We can view national politics the same way. Choosing not to vote can be rational, not unpatriotic.
Much of the American public already doesn’t seem to care about politics. People are shockingly ignorant about current events. In 2010 two-thirds of the electorate didn’t realize the economy had grown, not shrunk, even as they named the economy as the most important issue in the election. Most didn’t understand the basics of Obama’s health-care plan.
That most voters are still strikingly ignorant is surprising, considering the vast amount of information available. We can stream news channels to our dorm rooms and read The Economist on our smartphones. But young voters are probably more likely to be watching Netflix or sending Snapchats.
This attitude makes sense. Economists call it “rational ignorance.” If a vote counts for so little, why spend many hours informing yourself? Is it worthwhile to lose hours following politics in exchange for a single vote in the booth? Maybe not. On average, a voter in America has a 1 in 60 million chance of deciding a presidential election. Even in the most contested states – New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado – the chances that your single vote will determine your state’s election results is nearly 1 in 10 million, or close to lottery odds. In California, New York, and Texas, the chance that your vote will matter in the presidential election is one in a billion. Researchers Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin say that in these three states, “any reasons for voting must go beyond any instrumental rationality.” A 2001 National Bureau of Economic Research study looked at 40,000 state legislative elections – and determined that only seven were decided by a single vote.
In some situations, it would make sense to spend time on politics: if voter turnout were extraordinarily low in a local election, or if you simply find politics amusing for its own sake. In most circumstances, though, it is unreasonable to demand that busy people sacrifice time to cast the perfect vote, which in isolation will not affect any result.
Let’s imagine for a second that your vote could swing an election. Even then, your vote still wouldn’t be worth the time. In his book The Ethics of Voting, Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan imagined a scenario, based on 2006 GDP numbers and 2004 election results, in which the election of a certain candidate would increase GDP growth by 0.25% per year. If the candidate is only slightly leading in the polls, and a voter votes for her, the expected value to that voter of tipping the election is $4.77 x 10-2650. That’s many orders of magnitude less than a penny. Isn’t an extra hour to sleep, work out, see a friend, or work an extra hour more valuable than this tiny payoff? Maybe the safety of staying at home is worth it alone: it’s about as likely you’ll die in a car crash on the way to the polls that your vote will change the outcome of an election.
We’ve seen that voting isn’t rational for individuals. But while voting in national elections is irrational for the individual Stanford student, political behavior by campus groups like SIG may be more rational. But if their goal is really to change policy through voting, Stanford students are an ineffective constituency. Turning out 10,000 random supporters nationally has the same effect as turning out only 1,000 in New Mexico: given California is not a swing state, there are likely better places to be investing time and effort on get-out-the-vote.
Even in New Mexico, though, the chance that turning out 1,000 people changes the election is less than 0.02%. These odds are incredibly slim, and raise questions about the value of this political activity. What is the goal of political activism? To improve lives? If so, instead of spending 3 hours at an activities fair registering students to vote, a student activist could work for 3 hours at minimum wage for a total of $45 instead and donate his earnings to a charity purchasing insecticide-treated bed nets (about $7.50 each in the Democratic Republic of Congo), to save children’s lives from malaria. Alternatively, you could start a company; an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review argued that “all entrepreneurship is social” because entrepreneurs create jobs, improve access to goods and services, and raise standards of living. If the goal is to improve standard of living, spending time registering voters seems unjustified.
Especially in this election, where unfavorability ratings for Clinton and Trump are record-breakingly high and neither candidate is very desirable, voting looks more and more optional. Trump makes absurd comments about women and other minorities, hates immigration, and mongers fear about China through false statements, while Clinton supported the Iraq war and regime-changing around the world, voted for the Patriot Act that expanded unconstitutional government spying, and has a history of corruption and flip-flopping. Both are crony capitalists. Many of us, disillusioned with this year’s presidential race, are probably starting to think that presidential politics isn’t an effective way to improve policy. In a race with no candidates that are both moral and reasonable, voting should not be the default option for the thoughtful person.
Finally, is it wise to register those college students who care so little that they are unwilling to fill in a form for themselves? These are some of the least politically engaged and least informed democratic citizens, given their unwillingness to sign up to vote of their own accord. Stanford students like to think of themselves as reasonable, yet Bernie Sanders is persistently popular, despite harsh criticism of economic plans by both the left and right. Uninformed voters also explain much of Trump’s success. Diluting the electoral pool with people who only bothered to vote when a SIG representative told them to is unlikely to improve the state of American governance. It would be more effective to educate people on a large scale or change opinions through dialogue.
So don’t worry if you forget to vote in your state’s general election or if you’re too lazy to sign up for TurboVote. Don’t let student groups make you feel guilty for not voting. You’ll probably spend your time more efficiently, whether helping yourself or the world. Your favorite candidate will win or lose regardless of whether you show up to the ballot box.
Photo credit: Stanford in Government