Making the case against voting

The Baltimore Sun

The mayor's race, you think, is no contest. They're predicting rain after all; you don't want to get wet. Maybe you have to work, get your haircut or, I don't know, watch your new DVD, Grey's Anatomy, The Third Season.

So don't vote.

Really, stay home.

It's OK.

Your vote doesn't matter anyway, says Mark J. Perry, an economist, blogger and every civics teacher's worst nightmare.

Perry is among a group of academics who delight in turning one of America's most sacred beliefs - that every vote counts - on its head. They say that studies show that higher turnout tends not to change the outcome except in the tightest of races.

"The only time your vote counts is if it's a dead tie and you're the last person to vote," says Perry, a professor at the University of Michigan in Flint.

Perry comes by this way of thinking from the time he spent at George Mason University, where he received his doctorate in economics and which turns out to be a hotbed for the theory of rational ignorance. Applied to voting, the theory goes like this: The cost in time and effort spent learning about the candidates and issues and then getting out to your polling place far outweighs the benefit you might receive in actually having an impact on the outcome of the race.

So if you tuned out the candidates, their summer-long campaigns, their TV ads, robo-calls, mailers and intersection sign-waving, and you sit out today's voting, you may be ignorant, but you're rationally ignorant.

Pretty wacky stuff, I know. Don't you just love economists? Ever since the Freakonomics phenomenon took the world, or at least the best-seller lists, by storm, all sorts of economists have come down from their ivory towers to apply their theories to the real world.

Still, with election officials predicting a fairly low turnout - around 30 percent - for today's primary election, I thought I'd try to understand this case for not voting.

Baltimore's rational ignorance, by the way, has fluctuated over the years - voter turnout has ranged from about 60 percent in 1983 when William H. Murphy Jr. ran unsuccessfully against William Donald Schaefer; to 42 percent in 1987 (Kurt L. Schmoke's first win over Clarence Du Burns) and in 1999 (Martin O'Malley's first win); to lower rates, somewhere in the 30s, usually when an incumbent is running for re-election.

While the candidates tend to spend the waning days of the campaign on get-out-the-vote efforts - if you saw any of the candidates this weekend, their hoarse voices and sunburned faces testify to this - Perry said the belief in high turnout is more romantic than practical.

"I guess people feel this is how we express our democracy," Perry said.

Perry said those who feel every vote counts should be the ones who are arguing against high turnout. "People always want other people to vote, which is counterintuitive," he said. "If I want my vote to count, getting other people to vote just dilutes the value of my vote."

And yet, as surely as a campaign season winds down, the call for everyone to get out and vote grows. "It's part of the democratic mythology," said Jack Citrin, a University of California, Berkeley political scientist.

Most races simply aren't close enough - that, plus the fact that a greater turnout tends to mean simply that more supporters of each candidate will turn out, means that the percentage itself doesn't change, Citrin said.

He and his colleagues looked at some 200 U.S. Senate races over recent years to see how many would have gone the other way under different scenarios - if every voter voted, for example, or if equal numbers of poor and rich voted, or black and white. Their conclusion after running the simulations: In only seven of the races would a different person have been elected.

Ah, but imagine you were one of those seven - or rather, 14 - candidates. Or one of their constituents.

Or imagine you're a voter in the Baltimore City Council president's race. The Sun's last poll found community activist Michael Sarbanes just 3 percentage points ahead of incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, within the poll's margin of error.

"That's the kind of race," Citrin said, when I told him the poll results, "where it could make a difference."

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