Why do people bother to vote?
It’s a fair question. After all, the chances of one vote affecting a national election are infinitesimally small. Some years, in a small, swing-state like New Hampshire, those chances inflate from infinitesimally to microscopically small. But still, any rational observer would have to conclude that Election Day is a exercise in the triumph of the irrational—a sort of mass-delusion in which we willingly deceive ourselves into believing that We Can Make a Difference.
Because we also know that if it came down to a dozen votes or so, the recounts and the lawsuits and appeals would be so numerous that if we could harness the hot air generated we could heat our homes with it this winter. Some subset of judicial officials somewhere remote from us would make the final call. And we would have to sit passively like football fans frustrated at the officials, enraged but impotent.
Some say that it’s the linking of a national ballot with local issues that brings us to the ballot box. After all, it often is the case where local issues get decided by a vote or two. I’ve personally been involved in two such initiatives in the past decade. But turnout is always higher for national elections, so that can’t be the case. Or it may be that people vote in order to feel good about themselves—a sort of “voting as consumption good.” If so, then why do we complain about long lines and poor organization? If voting were like exercise, then overcoming obstacles should make us feel better—like doing a hard workout.
No, I think that voting is one of those public goods that people willingly donate—like picking up litter on a mountain trail that you never expect to hike again. We do it because we know that it does make our country a better place. And if we don’t like the outcome, we can always buy one of those bumper stickers that proudly proclaims, “Don’t blame me: I voted for the other guy.” We retain the right to complain.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
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