Take Back Tuesday and the Vain Altruism of Voting

Posted by David Mizner


You think you should vote, right?

Sure, it's possible you feel no pull toward the polls. You could be a principled or "rational" or simply uninterested non-voter. But chances are you buy into this social norm.

You don't vote because you think your ballot will be decisive. Or because you think electoral politics alone can change the country. You vote (yes, because you want to express a preference for a candidate or a party), but mostly because you think it's your responsibility to do so and you feel good when you fulfill it. Conversely, when you don't vote—in primary elections, say—you feel bad.

Or let's put it this way.

What drives people to the polls isn't so much a desire to benefit a candidate, party, or issue, but rather to keep a civic ripple effect going and thus benefit the entire nation. Like sports fans doing "the wave" in a stadium, active voters supposedly inspire those around them to follow suit. And just as a solo fan might not want to look like a spoilsport by refusing to hop up and flap his arms in the air, voting is also a way of fitting in with a national identity and dodging societal guilt heaped on non-voters who aren't proudly flaunting "I Voted" stickers. In other words, people vote because it looks good, and it makes them feel good.

That's why social pressure prompts people to vote. That's also why an experiment in Switzerland found that a vote-by-mail innovation lowered turnout, because people like to be seen doing their civic duty. Voting, then, can be a mixture of altruism and vanity.

How, then—aside from using creepy tactics like shaming—might we tap into people's sense of obligation to get them to the polls? We could remove barriers to voting so that in the balance of incentives and disincentives, the desire to do one's civic duty weighs more. We could also increase the incentives by making the visit to the polls but one part of a day of civic celebration, a very social day when non-voting would be glaring and voting would feel especially good.

All of which is to say that Take Back Tuesday is really onto something.

                           Sixth in a Series. One/Two/Three/Four/Five

This post is part of the Take Back Tuesday campaign to make Voting Day a national holiday. Sign up or encourage your company to join in at takebacktuesday.good.is.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne