Monday, November 3, 2008


I took the month of October off from my blog. This month, because it is Thanksgiving, I am going to offer comments on various things for which I am grateful.

I begin with gratitude for the right to vote. Most of us, myself included, will be grateful when this election is finally over, but still, in my opinion, we should be very grateful for the right to vote.

I am grateful that The Freeman magazine published my letter in its October edition in which I responded to Donald Boudreaux's article entitled "I Won't Vote". The main thrust of Mr. Bourdeaux's argument is that voting is a waste of time since a single vote has almost zero probability of affecting the outcome of an election. I argued that while that may be true in national elections, it is not true in local elections which are frequently decided by a handful of votes. He in turn responded quoting the work of two men, Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, that even in elections with small voting populations, single votes have little affect on the outcome. He says that even in a locality with only 1000 registered voters this would be the case. Since in a local election--one chosing city councilmen or school board members--the number of actual votes cast, assuming that the town is similar to my own, would range from 80 to 150 votes, Brennan and Lomasky are saying that a single vote is essentially worthless at very small populations. It would have been interesting had Mr. Boudreaux, rather than merely refer us to the text, which I doubt very much many of us have access to, told us at what threshold a man going to the polls could feel that his effort to go and vote would be worthwhile. Since they apparently feel that in a field of 80 voters it is not worthwhile, my own guess is that the number is quite small, probably of the order of 20 or 30 or even smaller.

Later, I will deal with my own conviction that we should be grateful for the right to vote even if our vote does not, as Mr. Boudreaux argues makes absolutely no difference, which I agree with him is certainly true in very large populations such as a state or national election, but right now I want to look at the smaller populations. In local elections, I believe, as I stated in my response, we should be not only grateful for the right to vote, but make sure that we exercise that right. I will try to illustrate with an example.

Supposing you live in a town with only two thousand registered voters--a situation approximating my own situation. In a local election two city councilmen are being chosen each from separate districts of one thousand registered voters each. The city coucil consists of 5 members, three of whom are "at large", and two of whom represent smaller districts. This also approximates my own situation. In our example, the 3 at large members of the council are not up for election this year.

The big issue in the election is, should the city hall be replaced. It is older, but still perfectly functional, but advocates for replacement point out that a new building would have many built in features accomodating newer technologies making city government, they claim, more efficient, and would also be made bigger, thus allowing for future expansion. Governments are generally eager to allow for future expansion. The problem, of course, is that this would necessitate an increase in taxes. Let us assume that you, as a voter, feel that this is not only not necessary, but even undesireable, and, therefore, you cast your vote for the candidate that opposes replacing the city hall. The day after the election you discover that (1) the issue was of strong enough interest to attract 20% of the registered voters in both districts--an unusually large turnout for a local election, and (2) in both districts, the candidate opposing the new city hall won by a large margin, approximately 120 to 80, in modern American politics, essentially, a landslide victory. Of course, you note immediately, that Mr. Boudreaux citing Brennan and Lomasky, was correct. Your vote did not decide the outcome. Without you the candidate you favored would still have won. Was it worth the ten to twenty minutes it took out of your day to cast your vote? My argument is, even though you did not directly effect the outcome, it was. The reason is that the election in a representative style government never really decides the issue. In this case, the at large councilmen could still vote for a city hall, however, the fact that the candidates voting for the new city hall were so handily defeated sends a clear message that the residents do not desire a new building. This would have a decided effect on the deliberations on the issue.

In my next blog, I will address reasons that, I believe, should give us reasons for being grateful for our right to vote on local issues--an area where I feel we should be much more involved and for which we should cherish all our rights much more than we do.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

The funny thing is when people go to the polls they go thinking about the presidential election (the vote that will have--or at least should have--the least effect on them). And they don't think at all about the local elections which will have a very direct impact on their community.
One additional point. When 80% of the people are not voting, they are in essence saying "I don't know enough about this...will you decide for me." As an informed citizen they are counting on you to vote for them. Which makes your insignificant vote just a little more significant.