Like praying, voting doesn’t really work — or does it?

Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:

L.A.'s seriously low voter turnout

Next month Angelenos will head to the polls to pick close to half of the 15-member City Council that governs much of their day-to-day life.

Well, that’s a bit of a stretch.

Not all Angelenos will be showing up at the polls. Not even most of those registered to vote. Among that elite subset of Southern California residents, it would be surprising if even 1 out of 7 shows up to exercise the franchise that previous generations of Americans fought and died to obtain and retain.

“Some City Hall watchers expect another weak election turnout next month, perhaps establishing a new modern-day low. In the mayoral primary election in 2013, only about 1 in 5 registered city voters went to the polls. In the last non-mayoral City Council election — the most comparable to this year’s campaign cycle — turnout was a third less, about 14%,” reports Soumya Karlamangla of The Times.

As a better-educated, smarter friend of mine likes to point out, voting doesn’t make any difference. Literally. It’s simple logic: The only vote you can control is your own. (Insert joke here about Chicago, the Daley machine and the ability to summon the dead to key elections.) Since you only have one vote to cast, and the chance of an election being decided by a single vote is close to nil, your vote rarely affects the outcome.

Voting, if you do it, is a civic ritual. Like praying, you know that it really doesn’t work, but the act of participating in the ritual connects you to, in the case of voting, the government that purports to represent you. So when the candidate you voted for wins, you feel as if she really is there for you. Conversely, you can always point out that you voted for the other guy if the one who won does a terrible job.

Los Angeles’ amazing shrinking voter turnouts, however, could make every vote count to an extent that neither I nor my pal has previously had to consider. It’s simple math: The fewer people show up to vote, the more your vote matters. In a real, although undeniably weird way, it is in your individual interest – if you are a voter – for no one else to vote.

Behold a paradox of democracy: The fewer people participate, the more powerful the ballot box becomes for those who do.

3 thoughts on “Like praying, voting doesn’t really work — or does it?

  1. Ted,

    A point to consider: Voting is not like praying.

    Your friend’s conclusion is right, up to a point. An individual vote means nothing because the likelihood of an election being decided on a single vote is almost zero. But here’s why your friend’s wrong: a special interest group that can guarantee a high voter turnout gets listened to. So, if you have a group with 200,000 members and 90 percent of them vote (180K votes) with a 90% solidarity on an issue (162K votes), they have the same potency as a group of 580K voters who vote at 40% turnout with a 70% solidarity on an issue. And, those 200,000 members are a self-advancing group for the candidate. The candidate’s message is disseminated to the group by the members of the group, so they require less of the Get Out The Vote hoopla.

    The standard cure for a bully is for all his victims to confront him at once. “You take a swing at him, and we’ll all swarm you.” If the group doesn’t, the bully keeps beating everyone up. If they do swarm him, they only need do it once. Maybe twice. If the bully only beats people up once every four years, the crowd will still form, and usually, the bully will understand that his only option is to slink away. No one gets hurt. But if the crowd ever fails to arrive? The bully will go right back to beating up people.

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