Monday, March 5, 2012

Making Your Mind Up

“Anna Bligh herself, I believe she tried hard, she did do a lot during the flood, but I’m not going to vote for her because she’s going to lose.”
Have you ever considered how people make their choices about who to vote for? Some people make a career of studying such things, so I’d always assumed it was simple…and then I saw the statement above. I had to look again and again.

Poor old simpleton me thought that while voters themselves are complicated humans, voting decisions would fall into a few simple categories:
Lefties                  Would Vote ALP/Greens, no matter what
Conservatives      Would Vote Liberal/National/LNP, no matter what
Swingers              Would be swayed by a few different factors
·         Policies
·         Personal Appeal (or otherwise) of the candidate and/or leader
·         Influence from parents, partners or peer group
The Swingers group is, of course, the reason why we have election campaigns. They are designed specifically to attract the votes of the ‘undecideds’ by maximising the appeal of the policies, the politicians, and the political leaders.
Yes, I know that in Australia we don’t vote for Prime Ministers and Premiers, but the reality is that a lot of people choose which local candidate to vote for on the basis of their preferred PM or Premier. The leader does have an impact.
For many, voting is an emotional event. For others, it’s an exercise in cold, hard logic. There are even those who see it as a chore, or an imposition. And yet, here’s this example of a voter choosing not to vote for a political party because the voter believes that party will lose. Put another way, that voter wants to back a winner, and is not interested in influencing the outcome.
Voting in a state election is not like having a fiver each way on the Melbourne Cup, or like serial-dialling the Big Brother eviction line. There’s no value in choosing the candidate most likely to win; it’s as though the result is pre-determined by polling, and the act of voting is validating the polls. It’s not a sane approach.
Evolutionary Psychologist  Satoshi Kanazawa suggests that voting is an entirely irrational act, because one vote cannot statistically change the outcome of an election. Of course, he is basing his examples in the USA where voting is not compulsory. In the 2000 election, only around 55% of eligible Americans voted. Still, he makes some interesting points.

One reason that people often offer for voting is “But what if everybody thought that way?”  The reasoning goes that, if everybody thought that voting was irrational and a waste of time, nobody would vote and democracy would collapse.  This is known as magical thinking, and it is a very common fallacy.  People often believe that what they do or how they think influences other people and others will think and behave like they do.  So, in this manifestation of magical thinking, people believe that, if they bother to vote, everybody else in the country will also vote, and the American democracy will thrive, but if they don’t bother to vote, then everybody else in the country will think like them, nobody will vote, and the American democracy will collapse.  Of course, this is a fallacy.  Your decision to vote or not will not affect whether or not other people will vote (unless you are a highly influential person and you announce your voting intention to the world in advance of the election).
Another reason for voting, offered by political scientists and lay individuals alike, is that it is a civic duty of every citizen in a democratic country to vote in elections.  It’s not about trying to affect the electoral outcome; it’s about doing your duty as a democratic citizen by voting in elections.  This reasoning fails on at least two separate grounds.  First, civic duty to uphold democracy has the same problem as affecting the electoral outcome as a reason to vote.  One person does not make any difference in the collective outcome as it takes a large majority of the citizenry to uphold democracy.  If democracy were to be upheld, it will be upheld without your voting; if it were to collapse, it will collapse even if you voted.  It would take a healthy dose of magical thinking to believe that the future and health of democracy depends on your voting.
Second, the civic duty of democratic citizens simply states that one must vote in an election.  It does not say whether you have to vote Democratic or Republican.  So you will fulfil your civic duty as a democratic citizen simply by turning up at the polling station and casting your ballot.  It does not matter who you vote for.  So if the reason for voting is fulfilling a civic duty and it’s not about affecting the electoral outcome, then, once inside the voting booth, people should vote randomly.  They have already fulfilled their civic duty by turning out to vote, and it doesn’t matter who they vote for.  Yet virtually every single person who turns out to vote votes for their favourite candidate, never for the opponent, which means that it is about trying to affect the outcome.

The West Wing is absolutely my favourite television show ever. Isn’t that just glorified politics as spectator sport? I love watching American politics. I take an Annual Leave Day for major events like the Presidential General Election or the Inauguration. I’m a political spectator. It’s my sport of choice.
But voting is something I take seriously. Why? Because it effects my life, and the society in which I live.
I’ve always been a fan of compulsory voting. Everyone lives in the society, so every voice must be heard in choosing how that society develops. Equally, people who don’t vote have no right to criticise the actions of a government they had no say in electing.

I’m starting to question my support of compulsory voting when someone who doesn’t seem to know the difference between a state election and a reality show has an equal vote to those who take an active interest, understand the issues and make informed choices.
Still, that’s our democracy.
BTW - If you want to bet on who you think will win an election, you can do that. It’s actually legal to vote on the outcome of elections in Australia. I find that bizarre, and slightly sinister, but it is legal. But betting on the outcome of an election is entirely different to voting to influence that outcome.

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