This post was written by my long-time friend and graduate school classmate and recently retired professor of economics from McNeese, Dr. Mike Kurth. This article appeared in Lagniappe, a Lake Charles magazine. I have his permission to post.
Democracy may be a great political system, but it is not perfect. One of its flaws is what economists call “rational ignorance,” which some have dubbed “the dumb voter theorem.” The premise is simple: information is costly and rational people chose to acquire knowledge only to the extent that the expected benefits exceed the expected cost.
To illustrate this concept, a few years back my wife, Cathy, decided she needed a new car. I quizzed her about her needs: size, number of seats, fuel efficiency, price, etc., then I spent two days on the Internet researching and comparing various makes and models to come up with a list of the top five vehicles I thought met her needs. I printed out the list and gave it to her with the suggestion she visit local dealerships and test-drive each car. She set off with one of her girlfriends and returned that evening the proud owner of a bright red car that didn’t come close to resembling any of the vehicles on my list. “Why did you choose that car?” I querried. Her answer was simple: “I liked the color.”
I am not faulting Cathy’s decision. It was her car and she bought what she liked. But I walked away shaking my head at myself and wondering why I had invested all that time into acquiring information about a choice over which I had no control.
Tis is the proposition faced by voters trying to decide which candidate to vote for in an election: how much time and effort should they invest in learning about the issues and the candidates, when the probability that their informed vote will affect the outcome of the election is close to zero.
My good friend Lynn Jones, the Clerk of Court for Calcasieu Parish, disagrees with me on this. He says there are many cases of elections being decided by a small number of votes, and once in a while an election is even decided by a single vote. I will grant him that this happens on occasion, but the probability of an election being decided by a single vote certainly decreases as the number of voters increases. In other words, an election for Governor, Senator or President is far less likely to be decided by a single vote than an election for Dog Catcher.
So, if one vote is unlikely to change the outcome of an election, why bother voting? Part of the answer is that many of us don’t vote: just over 50% of eligible voters turnout for presidential elections, and the turnout for local elections is generally much less. But among those who do vote, I suspect the most common answers are that they consider it their civic duty or, like the millions who vote for their favorite performer on American Idol, they want to register their support for a candidate they like.
But the bigger question is how informed are those who show up at the polls on Election Day? Rational ignorance suggests they have little incentive to expend much effort acquiring information. That is why candidates spend millions of dollars “informing” voters with selective information, half-truths and outright lies … and get away with it. Name recognition and image are what really matters in a political campaign.
One of the most famous cases of voter ignorance occurred in 1986 when Adli Stevenson II, a well-known Democrat politician in Illinois, was running for governor against Republican John Thompson. The night of the primary people were shocked to learn that followers of the political nut-case Lyndon LaRouche won the Democrat Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State. The most likely explanation is that the media had focused on the hotly contested Stevenson-Thompson race and nobody was paying attention to the candidates running for Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State and the voters—acting out rational ignorance—did their civic duty by voting for the first names and the ballot for those positions, which just happened to be followers of LaRouche. The end result was that Stevenson refused to run on the ticket with the LaRouchites, formed an ad hoc “Solidarity Party” and lost the general election to Thompson by 10 points.
When it comes to image over substance, one of the best-known examples is the 1960 presidential campaign between Nixon and Kennedy. In the first-ever televised presidential debate, Americans glued to their television sets saw a young, charismatic John Kennedy take on then Vice President Richard Nixon with a five-o’clock shadow that made him look like a crook, an image Nixon never lived down. Kennedy won the election by an extremely thin margin, and many credit his victory to the poor job by Nixon’s make-up artist for the debate.
We have a very important election coming up November 4th, an election that could change the course of the nation. Some will tell you it is your civic duty to vote. I say it is your civic duty to cast an informed vote. Casting an ignorant vote does not further the cause of democracy, rather it undermines democracy by reducing it to little more than voting for your favorite singing contestant. Take your civic duty seriously. Don’t just sit on your couch ingesting the B.S. fed to you in slick commercials or form your opinion based on image. Do the research yourself, check the facts, and then go to the polls to perform your civic duty.