Telling the truth on Ebola and the simple act of voting

We tell people that 'your vote can make a difference,' when the chance of one vote tipping a presidential race is, say, 1 in 60 million. There are other reasons to vote.

Laura Greene/The Enterprise/AP
Volunteers assist a voter for curbside voting in the parking lot at Jamestown City Hall in Jamestown, N.C., on Friday. If a person is physically unable to enter a polling place, curbside voting is provided at all of the early voting sites.

In pleading for calm about Ebola, public officials are unintentionally subverting a familiar slogan of voter turnout campaigns.

That connection may sound odd, but read on.

President Obama has reassured Americans that the chances “of widespread Ebola outbreaks in this country are very, very low.” Experts agree. One estimate puts the risk of catching Ebola in the United States at 1 in 13.3 million. In light of such figures, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) says, “Go about your business.” The idea is that if the probability of an event is so microscopically small, then we should not let it drive our day-to-day activity.

Fine, but ponder how Cuomo’s advice applies to election turnout. When encouraging voting, political campaigns and good-government groups typically tell people, “Your vote can make a difference!”  This phrase suggests that there is a real chance that a single vote could tip the election from candidate to the other.

Why use such appeals?  Voting entails costs in the form of time and trouble. People have to register, learn about their choices on the ballot, and then either go to the voting booth or secure a mail ballot. If a citizen expects to be the tie-breaker – and thus the kingmaker – then he or she will surely think that the benefits of voting outweigh the costs.

But there are more than 140 million registered voters. In presidential elections, one study found, the average American voter has a 1 in 60 million chance of being decisive in the presidential election. In other words, you are more likely to catch Ebola than to cast the deciding vote for president. 

For other elections, the odds are greater but still minuscule. An analysis of 16,577 federal elections between 1898 through 1992 found that only one – a 1910 congressional race – had turned on a single vote.

So the customary turnout slogan is basically dishonest: for all practical purposes, your vote will not make a difference. And if it doesn’t make sense to alter your routines for fear of getting Ebola, then it doesn’t make sense to vote in hopes of deciding an election.

Even knowing the numbers, some people get great satisfaction from the act of casting a ballot. For them, voting is worthwhile because they enjoy expressing themselves in an election. For most people, however, voting is a chore. They do it because they think it is a civic duty, which it is.  Duty is about doing things not because they bring us any individual benefit, but because they’re the right thing to do.

An honest turnout appeal would say, “No, your single vote won’t change the outcome, but as a citizen you have an obligation to participate in our democracy.” Rousing? No. Mature, yes.

When I hear the “your vote can make a difference” line, I think of the lies that parents sometimes tell their kids. (“If you keep making that face, it will freeze that way forever!”) 

If we want people to vote, we should stop treating them as children.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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