Stepping Up

After taking control of the House in November, Democrats prioritized voting reform with the introduction of H.R. 1. The bill represents Democrats’ attempt to follow through on their espoused commitment to fixing American democracy by seeking to make it easier for citizens to cast their ballots.

Key components of the bill include early voting, same-day voter registration, and online voter registration, all designed to boost voter turnout and re-enfranchise Americans. But what if these measures don’t actually lead to higher turnout? Between 2000 and 2014, early voting jumped from 14 percent to 31.2 percent of national voting. However, during this same period, the US Elections Project saw presidential turnout rates increase only by a few percentage points. Recent studies examining the relationship between early voting measures and increased turnout have shown that there is little correlation between the two. This holds true for midterm turnout rates as well, suggesting that there are other factors at play in the disconnect between citizens and government.

For too long, strategies for increasing democratic participation have focused solely on standard ballot box voting, but a vote is just one method of expressing an individual’s political choice. Other models of political expression offer individuals more direct ways of voicing their political choice.

The most compelling of these alternative models is ‘foot voting.’ Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University describes foot voting as “a tool for enhancing political freedom: the ability of the people to choose the political regime under which they wish to live.” Foot voting consists of voters moving to jurisdictions that they find favorable instead of hoping that their ballot box vote will translate into policy reform.

"Not only does foot voting provide a more direct pathway for citizens to affect outcomes, but it also values a citizen’s efforts to make more informed decisions."

The most important difference between ballot box voting and foot voting is that the latter has a much higher likelihood of creating change for the voter. By contrast, in ballot box voting, a vote only offers a small chance for change—the natural result of a large body of voters. An individual casting a single vote in the midst of millions of others is less likely to see their desired policies in place than someone who chooses to move to a place that is already tailored to their political preferences.

The current ballot box system also does not properly incentivize citizens to learn more about their political systems due to the diminishing impact of their individual votes. Compared to foot voters, citizens voting at ballot boxes are less likely to reap political benefits from civic participation while expending the same amount of energy acquiring political knowledge. Thus, citizens become less inclined to learn about politics because they feel they cannot affect it. Foot voting, by comparison, provides a direct means for voters to live in a system that reflects their political preferences. Thus, a citizen is strongly incentivized to acquire political knowledge; the more effort they put into acquiring such information, the better informed their foot vote—that is, their choice of where to live—will be. Not only does foot voting provide a more direct pathway for citizens to affect outcomes, but it also values a citizen’s efforts to make more informed decisions.

Political decentralization is critical to maximizing the benefits of foot voting by ensuring citizens can move to jurisdictions that exercise localized governance, unrestricted by higher centralized authority. So, it is perhaps most feasible to encourage foot voting at the level of local governments between metropolitan areas. If local governments are granted more autonomy and power, citizens would be able to move to any one of hundreds of different jurisdictions in order to create political outcomes for themselves. Although high moving costs are often cited as a strike against foot voting, Americans already move at the local level quite frequently, according to analysis based off Census Bureau data. Localized encouragement of foot voting would thus provide immense political benefits and align with existing trends that mitigate the costs of moving Of course, the argument here does not suggest that all decisions should be made by foot voting or that all political power should be decentralized. The ballot box will likely remain an effective tool for policy making within the scope of empowered metropolitan jurisdictions. Ultimately, foot voting enhances political choice: Its undervalued advantages justify greater political decentralization as a means of encouraging political expression. If Americans want to increase their political freedom, they should reevaluate the methods of their political system and consider getting their foot out the door.

Photo: “Ballot box voting

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