Matthew Zabka: Noise at the polls

BY MATTHEW ZABKA

Published August 5, 2012

It seems that one cannot walk across campus without being approached by someone who wants to register Michigan voters. I recently heard somebody tell the man who was trying to register her that she did not feel comfortable voting because she felt too uninformed. The man then tried to convince her of how very important it was for every single eligible American to take advantage of his or her right to vote.

Society seems to chide those who are eligible to vote but choose not to: P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign comes to mind, for example. The stigma, however, is greatly misplaced. The uninformed voter’s checkmark on a ballot doesn’t serve the republic, and society shouldn’t reproach uninformed non-voters. Rather, the stigma should be against being uninformed altogether.

In statistics, random variation in a system — like random votes in an election — is called “noise.” This term seems particularly appropriate considering a growing percentage of us get our information from biased shows, with people like Sean Hannity or Bill Maher yelling about how stupid they think the other side is. The ever-louder blubbering of these talking heads has led to more statistical noise in elections.

The man who attempted to register the woman directed her to a website where she could inform herself. His suggestion — and I am not making this up — was President Barack Obama’s campaign website. “Everything you need to know is there.” Yes, everything she needed to know in order to vote exactly how the guy wanted her to vote.

Informed voters examine issues and support policies based on what they think is best, but no voter should support a policy only because a particular candidate or political party has adopted that policy. It’s scary to see how often a party can take two completely opposite positions while the party faithful happily contradict themselves.

Angry about the Iraq war, many liberals cheered as then-Sen. Obama declared, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” After his election to the presidency, Obama unilaterally authorized military attacks against Libya — and the same liberals then cheered!

Not to be outdone, many conservatives supported spending almost $1 trillion to topple the dictator of an oil-rich nation to protect civilians while a Republican was in the White House. The same conservatives then opposed spending $1 billion to topple the dictator of an oil-rich nation to protect civilians while a Democrat was in the White House.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans examined these issues and made informed decisions. Rather, they listened to their political party’s leaders and talk-show hosts. When these leaders did a 180, these voters followed them in lock-step. I suppose living as one of these party faithful would be pretty easy. Why spend time informing yourself when Messrs. Reid or Boehner will tell you what to think?

Perhaps scariest is the fact that independent thinkers are becoming a smaller percentage of the voting block. Some polls have indicated that Obama and Mitt Romney are fighting over the less than 10 percent of voters who are undecided. Meanwhile, according to Gallup, the budget deficit is the second most important issue in this election. Neither Romney nor Obama has presented a credible plan to deal with these unsustainable deficits, but incredibly 90 percent of voters have made up their minds. How depressing.

It is every American’s right to vote. There’s a stigma in this country against people who do not exercise this right, but this makes as much sense as chiding somebody for not exercising his Second Amendment rights. Americans should instead be encouraged to stay informed and make their own decisions about what policies are best. As to how to achieve this, have you tried putting down the remote and picking up a newspaper?

Matthew Zabka can be reached at mzbka@umich.edu.