Democracy relies on collective votes

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DICK HEDRICK, Guest Columnist

As the November election approaches, citizens of this great nation of ours will once again have the opportunity to vote in the incumbents or “throw the scoundrels out.” While the U.S. may be the model for how a democratic republic successfully operates over time, the fact is that seldom do more than 50 percent of its eligible voters bother to exercise this civic responsibility.  

In the freest and most fortunate country on the planet, why is this the case?  Why don’t more voters go to the polls?

A young economist by the name of Steven Levitt, a 36-year-old professor and researcher at the University of Chicago, has shared his unique observations on this issue, as well as on many others. In fact, his take on several phenomena has earned him both plaudits and criticisms from a wide array of those who have studied his works. His best-seller, “Freakonomics,” co-written with Stephen Dubner, deals with a smattering of intrinsically interesting questions, such as what poses a greater danger, guns or swimming pools? Which is a greater threat, food or terrorists? What constitutes good parenting? Why do drug dealers live with their moms? What caused the sudden drop in violent crime during the 1990s?  Levitt’s findings, often as not, fly in the face of conventional wisdom.  

For instance, he concludes that swimming pools are much more dangerous than guns. Children under 10 are nearly 100 times more likely to drown in a residential pool than die from a gun. He found that Americans are in greater danger of being killed by french fries than terrorists – think fatty foods and heart disease – and that good parenting is primarily a matter of “things that parents are,” as opposed to “things that parents do.”

Parenting techniques may be overrated, according to Levitt. His research also indicates that only those higher-ups – officers, enforcers and board of directors – in the illegal drug-selling industry make a substantial living.  

The street dealers or foot soldiers, who are at the greatest risk of going to prison or being shot and killed, are barely surviving financially. Thus, most of them rely on their immediate families for food, shelter, transportation and other basic necessities.  

His most controversial theory is that the Roe v. Wade 1973 Supreme Court decision was the most significant factor in the reduction of violent crimes during the decade of the 1990s, following a proliferation of murder and mayhem during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  

While unintended, legalized abortion eliminated a substantial number of unwanted children, those that research tell us are most likely to engage in a life of crime.  Had they lived, they would have come of age in the 1990s. Levitt, himself, does not approve or promote abortion.  He simply passes on his personal interpretation from the statistics.

With regard to voting, Levitt turns the question around and asks why do people bother to vote at all, since the odds are infinitesimal that the outcome will be decided by a single vote? In other words, why go to the polls if one person’s vote almost never matters?  

He proposes four possibilities: (1) People are not very bright; (2) We vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets – chances of winning or influencing an election are about equal; (3) We believe it is a civic duty; or (4) We vote in order to seek social esteem, to be seen at the polls by our neighbors and friends.  

While Levitt’s research persuades him to favor No. 4, it is interesting that no ink is given to a voter’s political, economic or social philosophy as motivating factors in his or her desire to exercise the ballot.

Granted, local races tend to focus primarily on the character, personal traits and competencies of the candidates, and less on their personal philosophies. However, in state and national elections, thanks to the news media’s incessant analysis, voters have the luxury of knowing where each candidate stands on the issues.

I can remember my grandfather, R.O. Hedrick, supporting Sen. Robert Taft over Gen. Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 Republican Convention.

While Eisenhower may have been the more electable candidate – for sure, he had more personality and star appeal – Taft’s political and economic conservatism were more in line with that of my grandfather.  

I suspect many of us today are motivated to vote for  particular candidates for the same reason. We like the way they think.

By the way, Levitt acknowledges that even though an individual vote may be largely inconsequential, in the aggregate it is a democracy’s most powerful instrument for holding its government accountable.  

Let’s be honest, it is not your vote, or my vote that ultimately matters. It is our collective vote that determines the way we shall be governed.

See you at the polls.

Our neighbors and friends will be looking for us.

Hedrick resides in Spencer County and is a monthly columnist for the Spencer County Journal-Democrat.