On Election Day, I noticed dozens of Facebook status updates asking friends and family to “go vote.” From a purely economic standpoint, these appeals are almost worthless. There is a small probability that one person’s impersonal directive will turn a non-voter into a voter. This probability likely decreases the more competitive a state is – voters from Ohio are reminded to vote plenty – and therefore these appeals are least likely to influence the voters who matter the most.
Even if someone does vote because of your Facebook status, there is no guarantee that he will vote for your preferred candidate and, in most states, there is almost no chance that his vote will sway the election. I’ll leave the calculations to Nate Silver, but I would guess that the expected economic value from such a Facebook post is on the order of fractions of a cent; something more than economics must be leading people to make these and similar public declarations.
One explanation is that these posts derive value from civic duty, or the responsibilities we have as citizens. Elections, and the days leading up to them, are generally high on civic duty: thousands tune into debates, oftentimes just to gain a better understanding of certain issues and policies; people from all backgrounds volunteer to count ballots; and millions vote for president, even though many voters have practically no chance of shaping the national election. As the Facebook examples show, civic duty is also something we expect of other citizens. As the title of a Haas Center for Public Service webpage goes, “Fulfill Your Civic Duty and Register to Vote.”
Quite frankly, though, I regard voting as one of the least meaningful ways to abide by one’s civic duty. Is a voter who casts her ballot for President Obama because he plays basketball fulfilling her civic duty? One could argue that she is in fact shirking her civic duty and would have been a more responsible citizen by not voting at all. Although this is obviously an extreme example, there are countless statistics showing the general ignorance of Americans, a fact that is certainly not helped by the polarization of news media.
America’s “best and brightest” are not perfect, either. How many Stanford students knew the platforms of the third party candidates listed on their ballots? I’m guessing not many. We cannot all be experts, but we can at least provide ourselves with a basic understanding of the candidates and the issues. We can also seek out opportunities to debate with those who hold different political perspectives; rather than label these people, we should engage with them. In short, civic duty is not merely voting, but having an informed vote.
Civic duty is also more than participating in our democracy every two years; what we do in between the elections is equally, if not more, important. President Obama may have stated this best when, in Tuesday’s victory speech, he said that “the role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together.” Civic duty then involves activities like participating in public service or advocacy, paying taxes, and devoting oneself to better understanding American government and culture. Although voting may accord with one’s civic duty, in almost all cases it does nothing to effect change at the local, state, or national level. Voting should therefore not be viewed as a “fulfillment” of civic duty, but rather just one of many actions we as responsible citizens should pursue.
In this vein, I would like to briefly praise Michael Tubbs ‘12, who by all measures seems to be fulfilling his civic duty. I do not know him personally, but his resume suggests that he could have found a prestigious job in Washington after graduation. Instead, he returned to his struggling Central Valley hometown to run for an unglamorous city-council seat. As he explained in an interview in The Stanford Daily last year, “I like making a difference for people, and the best way to do that in Stockton now, in my opinion, is through the political system.” Tubbs won his seat decisively, and I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. He is dedicating his life to the tenets of civic duty, and people like him should be applauded.
Tubbs’ efforts seem to make voting pale in comparison. But we are not all fit to run for city-council, nor should we; many people – such as teachers, civil rights lawyers and more – devote their lives to being responsible citizens in other ways. We can also be responsible citizens by contributing to our communities, whether that means serving on the PTA or collecting litter in parks. In short, there are hundreds of ways we can adhere to our civic duty. It is time we recognize these.
How do you adhere to your civic duty? Email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.