Voter Turnout: Is It Overrated?

Roll of "I Voted" stickers which are given out to increase voter turnout.
Roll of "I Voted" stickers. PHOTO: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

If you were a student, internet user, or just another average American in the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, you may have noticed the extensive efforts to increase voter turnout, primarily getting eligible voters registered, participating, and making their voices heard. On the day of the voter registration deadline, Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter Defazio visited my campus to speak to students during classes and invite them to register. Taylor Swift broke her career-long political silence to endorse Phil Bredesen and encourage fans to vote. Elle Magazine and others put out clickbait headlines redirecting users to the official voter registration website, and one nonprofit even developed an app that helps you nag your friends to vote.

Every election of our lifetimes seems to be characterized as the most important one, but the get-out-the-vote efforts seemed to be especially pronounced this year. The constant reminders to vote have left me wondering: is there really any merit in coaxing inactive voters into political participation?

Some might say that organizing for higher voter turnout is simply a get-out-the-vote strategy for particular political interests. In an August protest outside the White House, Rosie O’Donnell suggested that the way for Democrats to win would be by registering as many people to vote as possible. With Resistance fervor as high as ever, it’s likely that many Democrats believe that all that’s needed to defeat Trump is pulling more eligible voters off the sidelines. However, getting more people to vote simply for the sake of voting doesn’t guarantee any particularly desirable political outcome. In fact, increasing the turnout of uninformed voters may actually be counterproductive to meaningful progress. Michael Huemer, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, describes the downfalls of uninformed voting in his essay, In Praise of Passivity:

“Most voters have no idea what is going on–they may not even know who their leaders are, and certainly do not know who is the best candidate. Imagine that someone asks you for directions to a local restaurant. If you have no idea where the restaurant is, you should not make it up. You should not tell the person some guess that seems sort of plausible to you. You should tell them you don’t know and let them get directions from someone more knowledgeable. 

Ignorant voting is even worse than ignorant giving of directions, because voting is an exercise of political power (albeit a very small one)–to vote for a policy is not only to make a recommendation, but to request that the policy be imposed on others by force. Collectively, the majority imposes policies or personnel choices on the rest of society. To be justified in participating in any such imposition, one must have some strong justification for thinking that the policy or personnel choice is beneficial, or at least acceptable.”

In other words, if you feel that you have a reason to vote, by all means, do so—but not everyone fits in that category. Those who don’t vote in elections often stay out of the process because they don’t feel informed or engaged enough to make a proper decision, and I can’t say I blame them. Those with a stronger motivation to vote generally don’t need to be reminded about it, so most outreach to inactive voters is either redundant or counterproductive. If someone needs to be told to vote by celebrities, talk show hosts, or their friends on social media in order to care, should they really be voting in the first place?

Voter turnout activism often rests on the assumption that democracy requires participation to function, but political participation is not an end in itself. If and when you vote, do it for a reason—not just for the sticker.

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