G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I was going in hard on Twitter on “I Voted” stickers. I had too many Facebook friends snap pictures of their stickers and others who made comments about wanting their voting sticker. It was clear that they only voted in order to get the sticker. My aversion to the sticker is that it is a gimmick used to snare the marginal voter.
The type of person that will be snared by this social pressure is the type of person who will be a lower information voter. The entire political process vies for the marginal and low-information voter (I’d argue that there are few marginal high-information voters). If we must have a democracy, it would be nice if there were pressure towards a vertical democracy, not a horizontal one. I want my democracy deep and rich and full of people who want to participate. I don’t want it shallow and squeamish, moody, and stupid. There is also the possibility that bad voters drive out good voters. High information voters are more likely to avoid the process as their informed votes are diluted by uninformed votes.
At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson offers a defense of the sticker. I agree with Thompson regarding his rebuttal to those who argue that voting is not rational in economic terms:
At a pure cost-benefit level, it’s hard to justify taking hours out of your day to cast a single vote when the margin of victory can be counted in the tens of thousands. But today, millions of Americans will do just that. They will break out of this narrow boundary of economic rationalization, stand around in line for hours, and make democracy happen.
And yet, we vote. We vote because we think it’s important. We vote because we care about our country and our rights. We vote because it makes us feel good. It has nothing to do with economics.
The Swiss government failed to understand why people vote, Funk concluded. It’s social pressure, not economics, that motivates the marginal, or on-the-fence, voter. By creating the option to vote by mail, Switzerland got it backwards. They decreased the voting costs, but also removed the social pressure.
Thompson makes the same point I made on Twitter but has a completely different opinion about the ideal democracy:
People like being seen voting, as Funk concluded, but we also like being seen having voted. Theoretically something signalling to our community that we’ve already voted should create the same feelings of social cohesion, civic duty, and belonging. And that’s where the “I Voted” sticker comes in.
The “I Voted” sticker is a signal and an advertisement. It binds people together in solidarity and reminds others to join the group. Tens of millions of people will vote in every presidential election whether there are free stickers or free cookies. But beyond these intrinsically interested (and, possibly, more informed) voters are countless more citizens who need motivation to show up at the ballot box.
The “I Voted” sticker isn’t worth squat on the market. Its value — and its motivation — is purely social. And to the extent that it might actually get some marginal Americans to the polls, it’s also priceless.
Though I support voter ID measures (but think the government should provide free IDs to the electorate), I can’t quibble with the sentiment of those who oppose them. An ID limits access and diminishes suffrage. It hinders people who are already thinking about voting, from voting. But a voting sticker is a nudge rather than a non-barrier. We should support those who want to vote and try to prevent people from manipulating the system. And we should let voting occur organically. Individual groups of friends who discuss voting and such, but a coordinated effort to coerce or pressure votes is systemically flawed.