What message will you send?

Mar 292007
Authors: Seth Anthony

I have a friend who occasionally mocks me because I bother to vote. He’s an economics graduate student, and, looking at elections from a strictly mathematical perspective, he has a point.

When political scientists or economists try to explain why and how people vote, they often look at the balance between costs and potential benefits to each voter. After all, it “costs” time and effort and perhaps gas money to travel to the polls and cast a ballot. For students, that’s time we could spend playing “World of Warcraft,” working, sleeping or even doing homework.

And if you really face facts, the chances of your vote swinging an election – even an election as inconsequential as ASCSU Senator from the College of Liberal Arts – are next to nil. Multiply that by the change that can result from swinging only one member in a legislative body, weigh it all against the costs, and you have yourself a return on your voting investment any financial advisor worth their salt would tell you to steer clear of.

It’s so simple, you could describe it with an equation, and, in 1962, two political scientists, William Riker (no, I’m not making that name up) and Peter Ordeshook, did. The equation – B*p>C – says that if the benefit of your desired outcome times the probability of your vote affecting the result is greater than the cost of voting, then a rational person will vote.

By a strictly rational analysis, therefore, voting doesn’t make sense – the costs are too high and the benefits too low. So why will several thousand students turn out next week to cast a ballot for ASCSU elections? Why don’t we all throw up our hands and declare, alongside TV’s Hank Hill: “With voter turnout at an all-time low, not voting makes me even more American.”

In order to explain why anybody bothers to show up at all on election day, the economists had to add a new factor to the equation. They reasoned that intangible benefits of voting – the sense of fulfillment you get from displaying an “I Voted” sticker, for instance – outweigh the costs of voting and motivate people to the polls. (The other explanation, of course, is that we’re all horrible judges of probability.)

However, my vote has value to me over and above mere electoral power or civic pride. Every vote I cast sends a message, a political market signal much like the economic market signals we send every time we choose whether or not to buy a product. Those signals collectively shape the political marketplace; even by casting a vote for a losing candidate, I’m saying, “I value these ideas, these principles, these platforms.” And in the electoral marketplace where politicians and parties scramble for support, my vote, your vote, and even those who don’t vote all send messages which alter the political landscape.

What does this mean for next week’s ASCSU elections? It means that, as similar as candidates and platforms may seem, change only happens in response to the messages we send. I’m voting for Katie and Trevor, for instance, not only because I want people of their character and dedication in office, but because I want to see their idea of lobbying the legislature for tax-free textbooks become a reality. The value of my vote isn’t its miniscule chance of swinging the election, but the message I’m sending is: “I like this idea. I like this kind of leader.”

If voting – or not voting – really does send a message, why aren’t we all shouting that message louder? The Collegian’s letters to the editor section should be filled with messages, endorsements, and discussion of our ASCSU candidates. Why aren’t they? To my fellow students: What message are you trying to send?

Seth Anthony is a chemistry masters student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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