Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, May 11 2003
by Susan Ives
This is a math moment. When I was in college we were taught “the calculus of voting.” Professors recognize that the reason people major in political science is to avoid calculus — if we wanted to carry slide rules we would have become engineers — so they made the formula simple.
It goes like this: ((P*B)+d)/C.
The P stands for a voter’s perception that his or her vote is important; that it can influence the results of a race, that it will make a difference to the outcome whether this ballot is cast. You multiply this by B, for benefits. To a cynic, this is the “what’s in it for me?” factor. But if the choice is between Tweedlededee and Tweedledum, or if a candidate is running unopposed, or if the race or issue is perceived as unimportant, voters don’t bother to haul their bodies out of bed on election day.
To this you add d, or the satisfaction of doing an important civic duty, of being part of the political process, of being an active and engaged citizen.
The formula wouldn’t be sufficiently intimidating to poly sci freshmen if it didn’t include long division, so the result is divided by C, the cost of voting. This is the hassle of getting registered, of finding your polling place, of standing in line. It includes the effort to learn enough about the candidates and issues to make an informed choice.
For the life of me I can’t remember where we got the numbers to plug into the formula but I do know the result for the May 3rd City Council elections: 41,116 of 743,503 registered voters bothered to cast a ballot, a pathetic 5.53 percent.
The key variable can’t be P, or perception that the vote doesn’t count. In district 5 Patti Radle only needed 49 more votes to avoid a runoff. I have that many voters living on my block. Six district races ended in runoffs. Every vote was important.
And I know it isn’t B, benefits. What with bribery indictments and post-PGA angst, term limits on the table and tax increases a real possibility, there could be no doubt that it matters who gets elected to city council.
It certainly wasn’t C, cost. Voting is easy. The 1995 “motor voter” laws made registration painless. Busy on election day? There has been a tradition of early voting in Texas since 1972; you can vote at your convenience beginning on the 17th day before an election. There were no lines. Some precincts had as few as ten voters show up all day.
That leaves d, doesn’t it? It looks like people didn’t vote because they are disengaged from the process of democracy. Ironically, a recent Gallup Poll indicates that 75 percent of Americans “prefer to take the time to make sure a democratic government is established (in Iraq) — even if that results in U.S. troops staying in Iraq for a year or more.” We’re willing to fight and kill to establish democracy in Iraq, but not to walk across the street to practice it at home.
The runoff elections are on May 27. If the 2001 runoffs are an indicator, about half the voters will show up for the runoff as did for the general election. Do we really want half our city council elected by less than 3% of the voters? I don’t. So here’s what I want you to do. If you voted last week, do it again on May 27. And take someone with you this time—a newly-registered teen, an elderly aunt or maybe a new neighbor who can’t find the polling place yet. If we Americans hope to be a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world, it might help if we demonstrated our faith in the democratic system at home by, at least, voting.
It’s as easy as ((P*B)+d)/C.