Saturday, November 19, 2005

All the cool kids are doing it

Ampersand has a great post up at Alas, A Blog on why people vote, and more importantly, why they don't.

A study in Switzerland has shown that, contrary to expectations, a new vote-by-mail program often decreased voter turn out. The study suggests the change in voting patterns may be due to the social desirability factor: Swiss want to be seen to perform their civic duty; no possibility of social payoff means no vote.

Switzerland, who knew you were so shallow?

In contrast to Switzerland, California's vote-by-mail program is heralded in Democratic field campaign circles as a great success. In practice, that success is partly due to the tremendous Get Out The Vote-by-Mail drives--it tells as much about how campaigns work as how voters behave "in the wild."

Without more data on US voting behaviours [it may exists but I don't have it in hand], I don't know how the Swiss study would translate to the US. Do people here vote to impress their neighbours? Do Americans earn social capitol by being seen to perform their civic duty? Do absentee voting programs therefore decrease turnout? (I'm using "absentee" as an umbrella term for any alternatives to in-person voting). Clearly, the answers will vary with specific demographic and geographic groups. From the perspective of contemporary American values, I wouldn't expect the study to prove universally true here, but, I'd sure love to see it replicated so we could know for sure.

1. Let's review our own data. Does equivalent or similar data to the Swiss study exist about the instigation of absentee voting programs in the US?
2. Let's collect new data. When we implement new absentee voting methods, let's adopt the model of the Swiss study: proceed with caution, implement gradually, collect data, verify how voting tools affect turnout.
3. Let's compare data, to identify different local cultural factors, towards understanding how much of the Swiss study results are about Switzerland and how much about universal voting behaviors; and, whether voting methods that depress voter turnout in some parts of the US can be used successfully to boost turnout in other locations.
4. Let's make sure we're not supressing the vote. When it comes to advocating for Internet voting, let's proceed with our eyes open, and make sure the data supports our well-intentioned assumptions about how and why people vote.

Be sure to read Ampersand's post and the interesting discussion that follows. On the other hand, you may want to skip Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt's cynical panegyric on the futility of voting in the New York Times.

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