Why vote?

Economists often argue that voting is a waste of time, since the chance that your vote will influence the election outcome is virtually nil.  Maybe, but after watching this fear impels me to the polls. 

Thanks for the Scrooge treatment go to loyal reader and GMU student Adam.  If anyone knows of something similar for other candidates I will post an addendum.

Comments

You should vote for a third party...ya know, public financing and all

"Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little." -Edmund Burke

In the sequel, Alex T. reveals he would have voted for Bob Barr anyway.

I solved my own vote/don't vote conundrum by applying for a permanent absentee ballot. This way, instead of spending the 90 minutes in line like I did in 2004, voting for President took me less than a minute. (Voting for the 30+ other items took me longer, but still less time than if I'd had to actually leave my house.)

I was going to vote Libertarian again, but seeing that Washington State was so close the last time around compelled me at the last moment to fill in the bubble for McCain.

In years prior hearing people write-in "Mickey Mouse" really pissed me off, but I would have been proud to see a "John Galt" register some numbers.

Different Adam:
So the choice between execution and suicide is a valid one?
Abstaining is a choice - it's just that this certain choice do not vouch for power, or the transfer of it, thus being not valid in what constitutes contemporary democracy.

Different Adam:
So the choice between execution and suicide is a valid one?
Abstaining is a choice - it's just that this certain choice do not vouch for power, or the transfer of it, thus being not valid in what constitutes contemporary democracy.

Actually whats scary isn't that 1 vote might make a difference.

Its that Moveon.org believes that they way to get people to participate in democracy is through intimidation and of course to make sure that intimidation gets them to vote for B.H.O

(1) I think many like-minded people will vote (for the same reason I do, compare charitable giving)

But their voting is independent from yours. If you didn't vote there would just be one less vote. Or are you under the delusion that like-minded people will vote because you do? If so, it would be interesting if you could explain the causal mechanism.

(2) There is a ceremonial/affirming function of voting that confirms ones membership in the community in which the vote is cast. I get annoyed at non-voters, not because their votes may have made a difference but because they didn't care enough about the community to participate in the process of government

I don't understand how someone "shows they care about the community" by voting. What does one really have to do with the other?

If a group of people in the office are voting on whether to get Italian or Chinese food for lunch and I choose not to vote, in what way am I "hurting the community"? It seems like a complete non-sequiter. I am perhaps dimishing the chance I get my own preference, but I don't see what this has to do with "the community".

And additionally, the point is their vote is almost certainly not going to change the outcome in any meaningful way.

There have to be more productive and meaningful things one could do for the community than cast a vote that will change nothing.

In response to Jeremiah and diz:

Jeremiah is voting because of group rule-utilitarianism (see Coate and Conlin, 2004). Jeremiah is a member of a larger group of like-minded people. None of them can affect the election by themselves. However, if everyone in the group follows a rule (that is voting in close elections), then everyone in the group benefits. Hence, they follow a rule that maximizes group utility if every other member follows the rule--even if it doesn't maximize that persons utility.

His anger to people who don't vote is his disapproval of members of the community (or group) who disregard the rule, thus decreasing group utility. He is aware that the single person not voting will not make a difference. But to maximize utility, everyone must follow the group rule, and everyone else must know that everyone else is following the rule (to see why everyone must know, see Rational Ritual by Chwe).

I like to piss off people who have equations that assume rational agents. Therefore I do the irrational thing and vote.

I always[1] vote for the Libertarian candidate. If enough like minded folks like me do so, the media might actually cover our vote total instead of saying "other".

If the media cover the Libertarian result total, then next time more people might think it worthy to vote Libertarian, upping the total even more, and on and on and eventually we get an actual Libertarian in office.

[1] I did vote for Perot in '92 though, for two reasons. First, I felt it would help third parties to get elected in the future if he was successful. Second, I felt he would likely cut spending for "deficit" reasons, which while being a bad reason is better than nothing, noting that to spend is to tax.

@happyjuggler0:

There is nothing irrational about voting if U[voting]>U[not_voting]. It is that simple. What would be irrational would be NOT voting if U[voting]>U[not_voting]. Your U[.] apparently contains a component that likes to "piss off people who have equations that assume rational agents" by voting - therefore your U[voting]>U[not_voting]. Your U[.] also considers dynamic aspects of the voting process (more media coverage for Libertarian if more people vote Libertarian). If you really wanted to "piss off people who have equations that assume rational agents" then you would need to NOT vote because you have basically told us that U[voting]>U[not_voting] by your revealed action.

I don't pretend to know what's in people's U[.] - feeling proud to do one's civic duty, pissing people off, overweighting the probability that one's vote will determine the election, being shamed into voting by things like "Vote or Die", etc., etc., etc. For me, none of that stuff really registers with national elections, especially when the marginal change between one of the two candidates is likely to be, well, marginal for me. Now if it is voting for lunch I will (and do) veto Chinese food every single time I go to lunch with the group, because the impact on me is fairly substantial (I do not want just fortune cookies for lunch).

While we are at it, let's discuss U[vote_Mickey_Mouse] vs. U[not_voting]. Why choose to vote for Mickey Mouse (or another fictional character) when one knows there is zero chance of that individual winning (nor are any dynamic effects likely which could happen if one were to vote for a potentially viable 3rd party like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party). I liken this to tipping: If one chooses not to tip (vote) then the server (politician) cannot tell whether the tipper (1) is just an a$$ and doesn't leave tips or (2) thought the service was poor so doesn't leave a tip. If one leaves a tip of a quarter (Mickey Mouse vote), you can pretty much infer, if you are the server, that something went wrong.

Jeremiah is voting because of group rule-utilitarianism (see Coate and Conlin, 2004). Jeremiah is a member of a larger group of like-minded people. None of them can affect the election by themselves. However, if everyone in the group follows a rule (that is voting in close elections), then everyone in the group benefits.

But don't you see the obvious fallacy there?

Regardless of whether I see myself as part of a group following a rule or not, I still only have one vote. And, on election day, my vote is independent of the actions of whatever group I perceive myself to be a part of.

If I fancy myself a libertarian and decide to go out and vote "libertarian" on election day, that act does not cause other people who also fancy themselves libertarian to go out and vote. Let's say that independent of my actions, there will be 18,391 other libertarians that go out and vote in my state. If I go out and vote, there will be 18,392. That is the extent of the impact I have. 18,392 instead of 18,391.

I am delusional if I think my act of going out and voting caused the other 18,391 people to show up.

I do not agree, perhaps mistakenly, with the statement that the chances that your vote will affect the election is virtually nil. Why would that be? Suppose the election result was a blow out say 60% to 40%. Whose votes affected the election and whose didnt? If I was one of the ones that voted in the 60%, did my vote affect the election. I think it did, if not you will have to show me whose votes affected the election.

To me it seems the value of a vote is not at all binary "it mattered" or "it didnt". Instead I claim that the value of a vote, for a two party election is the same for every one who voted and is equal to 1 - [ (W - L)/(W+L)] where W is the number of winning votes and L the number of losing votes. So in a really close election the value of W - L goes to zero and the value of the vote for every one who voted is close to 1. For a landslide, the value of the vote for every one will be close to 0.

For a landslide, the value of the vote for every one will be close to 0

Your mention of a landslide brings up another reason voting matters (notwithstanding individual rationality or lack thereof). It is not merely to elect someone, it is also a poll that measures degree of general voting population preference.

The latter gives a signal to politicians and the media regarding the desirability of the candidates' message. For example when Mondale got trounced in '84 it sent a pretty clear message that voters had an antipathy towards tax hungry politicians. This in turn led (in my opinion) to the 1986 tax act which reduced tax rates (for the most part anyway) whilst closing "loopholes". Of course loopholes sprung up almost immediately after that, but that is a story for another post.

If Mondale had won by a landslide however it is pretty clear that tax rates would've soared instead. A close win by either candidate would've sent yet another message.

I agree that 1 vote truly will not make a difference. However I believe it is our duty to vote as American Citizens whether we believe our vote will count or not. Many have fought for this right and believe that we shouldn't let their sacrifice be in vain. I believe that voting is caring about the community and also the country that you live in. I believe that everyone should vote whether or not they believe that their vote will count, but because it is the right thing to do to show your pride in your community.

I guess you could call voting a prisoner's dilemma. If every libertarian out there but you voted, then of course you would come out ahead by saving your time. Even in a psychological sense, your vote would likely be a rounding error for Bob Barr's percentage of the total vote.

But you're crazy if you think the "rational" thing to do is not vote. Collusion is a necessity for any cause to get ahead. In the prisoner's dilemma, gangs need to keep members from snitching to be successful. Likewise, people of like-minded groups must keep their end of the bargain if they care about their cause at all.

The paradox is that if all voters are rationals, and voting is irrational because one vote can't change the outcome of an election, then nobody will vote. But if nobody votes, then one vote can indeed change the outcome of an election. Since a single voter can't really know how many people will vote, if she really cares about the outcome of an election, voting is the rational thing to do.

My view is this: if you're going to vote, just do it and shut the hell up about it. Nobody cares about your vote, meter.

I think this is a weird way of looking at the situation. If the election were that close, a la Florida 2000, it would be subjected to endless litigation and demands for recounts. The precise result would depend on the exact method of counting the votes. Hanging chads? Dimpled chads? As media recounts found after Florida 2000, of the seven or so procedures being used by different counties, some produced a Gore win and some produced a Bush win (the precise method Gore wanted would have given Bush the win anyway, but other methods would have given it to Gore).

Even with electronic voting machines, the result would probably hinge on how you counted the provisional and absentee ballots. Enforce the required formalities to the letter, or play fast and loose with them?

The real situation where your vote could make a difference is if one candidate is ahead by a small amount in the first count and one vote is the difference between accepting the result as legitimate and the Florida 2000 scenario. Probably this would happen if your vote is the difference between rounding up and rounding down. And even then there's no way to know who would have prevailed if the result had gone to recounts and litigation.

In other words, your vote could make a difference, but if it did you would never know.

To diz, and others:

It is not that voting is rational in the sense that your personal costs are greater than your personal benefits. And it's not that you voting is the reason why 18,234 other people cast their vote.

Suppose if everyone followed some voting rule, where if your costs of voting where below a certain critical value, then you vote. And suppose that the entire group adopting this rule makes everyone better over (it maximizes the group's utility). Then as a society, it makes sense to make a ritual out of ruling this rule. It's rational for us to train members that voting is worth it.

We have adopted the idea that "Those that can vote, should." This has been taught to us, and this belief goes deep into our society. Since everyone voting (or at least most people) has benefits to democracy, our society has benefited from creating this rule. Often people are called "unpatriotic" or "un-American" for not voting. As a society, we must maintain this rule, which is why we outcast those who don't follow it. Further, we don't want to be outcasts ourselves, and consequently, many of us follow the rule as well.

In short, it's not rational for a single person to vote. However, it is rational for society to train every single person to vote, because then everyone in the society is better off.

In a philosophical sense, we are acting in a utilitarian manner because we know other people are as well.

The paradox is that if all voters are rationals, and voting is irrational because one vote can't change the outcome of an election, then nobody will vote. But if nobody votes, then one vote can indeed change the outcome of an election. Since a single voter can't really know how many people will vote, if she really cares about the outcome of an election, voting is the rational thing to do.

If I could reasonably expect that I would be the only one to vote, I'd probably go ahead and vote.

But I don't think I can reasonably expect that. Indeed I think I can reasonably expect that 10's of millions of people will vote and my vote will have no impact on the outcome.

Are there any reasons to vote that don't rely on assuming wildly improbable hypotheticals come true?

As far as this "free rider" argument goes, is seems to me to be another complete non sequiter. If a group of us are having a vote on whether to get chinese or italian for lunch and I choose not to vote, in what way am I "free riding" on others? It simply does not follow.

Hey, how long until we see on this blog a link to a "9/11 was an inside job" site?

But now that the loser Alex has voted and Obama is president, how long until Iran has nukes?

Hahaha! Clever video. It's interesting how both democrats and republicans can use fear as motivator. Looks like they have something in common after all.

So, do economists support Obama in the same way late night comedians support Bush?

"Nonvoters = free riders."

Nope. Voters are free riders. I can picture a scenario where non-voters are free riders, but we don't live in that non-reality.

My goal is always to maximize, to the extent that I can, my vote. Towards that end I always encourage people to vote IF they agree with me. And I discourage people from voting IF they do not agree with me. Usually I just tell them that I'll cancel out their vote anyway. It's a lie, since I say that to several people each election, but a noble one, since I'm saving the country from their uninformed voting. :-)

They say, "If you don't vote then you can't complain."

If not for that rule, I'd stay home.

So, I vote Libertarian. For my effort I get great value:

1. The satisfaction that I voted for my principles.

2. The right to complain for 4 years no matter who wins.

To do otherwise would be a waste of time and a wasted vote.

BTR

I've never heard a good comeback to my hypothetical arguing that hard-core rationalists should vote, assuming that they do care about the outcome of the election. It goes like this:

We suppose a population that is about 70% hard-core rationalists, and 30% fuzzy-minded non-thinkers. The fuzzy-minded non-thinkers all support Albert Q. Kitten for leader, because he is just so *adorable*. They always vote, because it's just the warm and fuzzy thing to do. The hard core rationalists know that Kitten would be a disaster, and mostly support Michael Steeltrap, who has a mind like one. The polls in this community are confusing -- because they show that a very large majority of the community supports Steeltrap, but polls of "likely voters" show Kitten winning paws down, because most of the rationalists "know" that their individual vote doesn't matter so don't plan to vote. Steeltrap distributes a message to his rationalist supporters showing them the clear logic: if they all vote, their preferred candidate will win, but if they don't vote, there will be a Kitten in charge. The rationalists all nod their heads in agreement -- the logic is clear indeed. As more rationalists tell pollsters they will vote, polls start to shift until Steeltrap is running ahead of Kitten.

Sadly for the rationalists, when election day rolls around, there is an all-day Star Wars marathon on TV, which few of them want to take the time away from to vote. In one possible world, the rationalists each each argue to themselves much as diz does above: *their* decision whether or not to vote is independent of anyone else's decision, and is thus very unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. When the returns come in, it's Kitten in a landslide, as pretty much all of the rationalists stayed home, each confident that *his* or *her* vote would, by itself, make no difference.

In another possible world, the rationalists mostly accept Martin Saavedra's (and Steeltrap's) argument that their utility will be enhanced if they follow the rule that they all vote. In this world, Steeltrap won handily, leading to rational leadership for the next term.

Question to all: Why doesn't this hypothetical shred any general argument for the irrationality of voting? In the world where the rationalists believed that voting was irrational, their candidate lost. In the world where they believed it was rational, their candidate won. Given this example, it seems clear who has the better side of the argument... To me it seems that the argument that *my* vote, by itself, makes no difference can only possibly be valid if we fail to understand that there will be many other people who are also making a decision on whether or not to vote, and that reasoning used by *many* people does matter to the outcome.

In one possible world, the rationalists each each argue to themselves much as diz does above: *their* decision whether or not to vote is independent of anyone else's decision, and is thus very unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. When the returns come in, it's Kitten in a landslide, as pretty much all of the rationalists stayed home, each confident that *his* or *her* vote would, by itself, make no difference.

"One possible world"?

There is only one world, and it happens to be a world where my vote is independent of other people's votes.

In the scenario you describe, if I get off the couch and vote there is exactly one more vote cast than if I don't.

Me getting off the couch and voting does not cause other people who think like me to get off the couch and vote as well.

Look, if my using the phrase "possible world" is confusing to anyone, I'll make my argument simpler: If rational voters accept diz's argument, and fail to vote, their preferred candidate will lose. Therefore, if they would like to reach their preferred outcome, then they should *not* adopt his argument.

On the other hand, maybe diz's logic is the correct logic for solipsists to follow -- in that case, no one else is "deciding" whether or not to vote anyway.... :-)

My reason to vote is the opposite of Alex's: If McCain lost by one vote and it was because I didn't vote, I would have to live with the guilt associated with having sentenced my daughter to a future where her freedom: of religion, of speech, of choice of doctors, to reap greater net-of-taxes (more progressive under big-0, BTW that is a zero not an "o") rewards from outstanding market contributions, to keep and bear arms, to be safe from terrorists, both foreign and domestic, and to live under a rule of law that does not have Supreme Court judges who were appointed because they favored such abominations as wealth redistribution and tax payer funding for abortions.

The guilt that I would feel in this case (not voting against Obama, when doing so would have stopped his election) approaches infinity.

Is there really some benefit to having people whose only reason for going to the polls on Election Day is the fact that they don’t want to look bad in front of their neighbors ?

Let me just be blunt for a second.

If that’s your only reason for going to the polls, stay home. If you haven’t paid any attention to an election that’s been going on for two years and still don’t know who you’re voting for, stay home. If you’re planning on voting for a certain candidate based only on the fact that they’re good-looking, or they were endorsed by some celebrity you like, or you think they’re “cool†, stay home.
Trust me, you won’t be missed and we won’t harrass you for not coming to the polls.

The more I think about this post the less funny I find it.
At first when a colleague, Norm (Alex you, of course, know Norm) showed it to me we had a good laugh especially the little old lady calling you a Mother F*****. Vulgar, but funny, ok good one Alex.

But seriously, you clip is all about you and all about the present. Put that together with the vulgar, but admittedly funny, stuff and it goes sour pretty quickly.

There are long term issues in this presidential election that no one should trivialize: The most important may be Supreme Court appointments. To the extent that you agree with Obama that the Court should be biased toward income redistribution and selected minority groups you want to vote for him; and trivializing the long-run implications with clever clips that get even old Econ. profs to belly laugh is a good tactic.

meter,

If you think my concerns about the long run negative consequences of Obama/Biden upon economic and personal freedom and the rule of law are trivial, then by all means vote for the big-0 (that is a zero there not an "O"); the big-O was a famous basketball player who deserves respect for his accomplishments at work.

Oh, don't worry I-J, I and all my elitist librul MSM-reading latte-sippin' wingtip shoe-wearing friends are all voting O-B-A-M-A.

That and the potential for a 60% filibuster-proof plurality in Congress will be heavenly.

Gosh, I hope Obama nominates a slew of hard core abortion-loving terrorist sympathizers to the Supreme Court. That would be delicious.

True, we do hate products made in America. Thanks for the save.

In the presidential election one vote really won't make a difference thanks to the electoral college. You should still vote though. I mean, why not. The only place one vote could make a difference is in the more local elections. My dad once voted for a guy and the guy won by one vote. Course, the guy turned out to be some sort of criminal, bought a whore or something. At least that's the story I was told when I said I didn't want to go vote. It's probably true, just knowing my family. So, if you decide not to vote it really won't matter but some people may be angry with you and not allow you to complain about the state of the country in their presence.

Kirby wrote: "In the presidential election one vote really won't make a difference thanks to the electoral college."

Well no: A single vote can decide a state, whose electoral college points would then flow to that candidate. So, yes, a single vote can alter an election. Is this likely? No, but naturally the closer the election the greater the probability. That is, the expected marginal value of voting rises in close elections; notwithstanding the electoral college.

I think that everyone should vote. There are many people who think that one vote isn’t going to really make a difference, but when you have millions of people thinking like that it affects the polls in a negative way. Everyone should vote, if you want change and you feel like you’re not happy with things that are going on in the world than you need to vote because if you don’t than you shouldn’t have anything to complain about. Everyone’s vote count and everyone should vote to make a difference.

oh...yeah...i forgot to mention that other people fought for your rights to vote and you let all of their hard work and efforts go to waste....i dont think that they would appreciate that too much

Voting is an important thing. I feel that we are in a very bad econmic time. I think the influence of the president does make a huge diffrence in the way things are run. So voting is in fact a very important thing for all reason not just economic.

What is the point in bothering to vote for candidates in the U.S. anyway? Issues on the ballot I can understand taking the time to vote for or against for example if you live in California there's a reason to vote for Proposition 19 if for nothing else to further expose the Obama administration as reactionary by its response to its passage. But for actual candidates? Total waste of time.

After the Dems swept into power in Congress in the 2006 midterms on a platform of "Vote for us if you want to end the war in Iraq" and then refused to actually do anything to, you know, end the war in Iraq like cutting off funding for it by refusing to vote on supplementals that should have told anybody with common sense that they've been bamboozled. After Obama gets elected as a supposed "change agent" and despite a Dem majority Senate and House gives the American people a health care "reform" bill written by the big insurance companies and Big Pharma; after giving us a Wall Street "reform" bill written by Wall Street that does nothing to prevent their casino-like behavior; after getting a Nobel Peace Prize then immediately escalating the gas pipeline war in Afghanistan; after promising us a government of accountability then adamantly refusing to have his attorney general go after the war criminals Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, as apparantly accountability for torture, for the mainstreaming of police state measures with the Patriot Act and the starting of a war of aggression isn't worthy of examining as he's "moving forward, not looking backward"; as Obama has enshrined these police state measures and expanded upon them; and as Obama's surrounded himself with an administration made up of ruling class pukes from the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg Group and A.I.P.A.C. what can a sensible, informed person conclude but that it is an exercise in futility to go out and vote? Why bother when all the wealthy ruling elite will allow us to vote for are obvious conservatives and thinly-disguised conservatives? That's as undemocratic as Saddam Hussein's elections but with somewhat more sophistication.

Unless private money is taken completely out of political campaigns with each candidate instead getting an equal (but small) amount of public funding with campaigns lasting a couple months instead of a couple years the system will continue to be as artificial as professional wrestling. Candidates will continue to be nothing more than puppets of their wealthy corporate backers, answering to them instead of the average people of this country. Face it America: You don't have a democracy. What you have is a dog & pony show every few years, designed to make you think you have a say in what kind of government governs you. It is painfully obvious that you don't.

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