In defense of sporadic voters

Sendhil Mullainathan writes:

…we compared the polarization of 19- and 20-year-olds in an election year. Both age groups were eligible to vote, but only the 20-year-olds were able to vote in the previous election — and thus had a chance to formally commit themselves to candidates and ideologies.

We found that the 20-year-olds held stronger and more uniform views than the 19-year-olds. That wasn’t just a result of aging: When we looked at more age groups, we found that 18- and 19-year-olds, both of whom were ineligible to vote in the previous election, were similarly polarized; there were also no polarization differences between 20- and 21-year-olds, both of whom were able to vote previously. This and other evidence led us to conclude that exposure to the voting process more effectively committed people to a candidate or party…

A combination of neutrality and persistent voting would be ideal. But our psychologies are complicated. If they override our narrow self-interest and lead us to vote instead of free-riding, the very act of voting may make us more partisan. Sporadic voters can provide an antidote: Their previous lack of engagement may serve as a counter to partisanship.

There is a line between apathy and neutrality. People who sit out all elections provide little value to a democracy. People who sit out some elections, jumping in at crucial times, serve an important role as a reserve army of the uncommitted.

I once argued to Ashok Rao that public intellectuals and other influential persons should not vote at all for this reason.  By not voting, they will keep the quality of their influence higher.


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