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Why One Vote Matters

Do people vote their pocketbook? We often express confusion when Americans in one demographic group or another tend to vote for a particular party when they would likely be financially better off under the policies of the other party. It’s easy to think of examples on both sides (though I’ll avoid turning this post into such a list). But if personal finances are the only driving force behind your decision, why vote at all? Unless the election is decided by one vote, you’ll live under the same outcome either way, and won’t have to sacrifice your time lining up at a polling place. Looking at this question of why people vote at all can help inform why they vote for whom they do.

Let’s step back and look at a classic example of a public good. Suppose you’re in a public park and see a piece of litter on the ground. Picking it up would involve effort and perhaps handling something unsavory, and besides, someone else will come along and do it. That’s the so-called free-rider problem at work. So why might you pick up the piece of litter? It could be pure altruism, if you feel duty-bound to contribute to the cleanliness of the park for all to enjoy. But it also might give you a sense of identity and belonging: You care about the community and the planet, and fit in with others who feel the same way.

While unique in some ways, the issue of voting largely mirrors the public good problem above. Many people choose not to vote, just like many people don’t pick up the litter. Altruism comes into play as a motivation to vote when people aren’t passionate about any candidate but feel they are doing their “civic duty” (though doing one’s duty can certainly enhance someone’s positive identity). But often, a candidate’s core supporters are those to whom he or she truly speaks: Those who feel better about their own identity or sense of belonging by supporting the candidate. For these people, standing in line is a small price to pay.

When you’re confused as to why a candidate has the support they do, it’s often informative to look beyond their policy proposals and whether you perceive them as fit for the job. Take a look at what the candidate is telling supporters about themselves. And think about what your own candidates or party of choice tell you about your own identity and where you fit in. For many people, the decision to take time out of their day to cast a ballot isn’t about tangible personal benefit, nor is it about pure sense of duty. Instead, it’s about who they are and aspire to be.

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