The vital role of the occasional voter

But one type of nonvoter provides a silver lining in this otherwise gloomy state of affairs. These people, whom I call sporadic voters, don’t apathetically sit out all elections. They fail to go to the polls sometimes but do go at other times, presumably when they perceive the stakes to be high. And unlike apathetic nonvoters who undermine democracy, sporadic voters may actually bolster it. In fact, recent behavioral research suggests that this group may provide a reservoir of neutrality that can help keep democracy from going astray…

This, then, may be the hidden cost of voting, at least in American elections in this era: We find ourselves locked into one partisan policy or candidate. We process new information in a biased way. We cement a position and escalate our commitments. In essence, we become less neutral.

The key to short-circuiting this process may be that outsiders — those who haven’t agreed to any of the small steps — view the whole thing differently. They see the question about putting up the yard sign for what it is: a big and unreasonably intrusive request. They don’t feel compelled to say yes because of their own past behavior. By showing up in the middle of a process of escalation, they may help to prevent it.