With the midterm elections just around the corner, it makes sense to republish this article from SwiftEconomics on voting that I first published just after the 2010 midterm elections (in which I didn't vote). That being said, in the interim I've started to move toward the position that voting is sort of civic duty. That being said, your one vote still doesn't make any difference. Sorry.
I forgot to vote.
I meant to vote, really, honest I did. But I didn’t, and that makes me a bad person, I think. At least that’s what everyone on MTV told me.
But many people don’t vote, so it’s alright. At least a little bit. In the last Presidential election, with all its partisanship and “change” talk, a whole 44% of eligible Americans didn’t vote and turnout is even lower for the midterm elections (in 2006, 37.1% voted). So I’m most certainly not alone. And hey, at least I didn’t do it on purpose. I forgot. I was busy writing about politics on my blog.
But why don’t people vote? Well, actually a better question is why do people vote. Economist Anthony Downs developed a formula for the likelihood of any one person voting, it goes like this:
PB + D > C
P = Probability a vote will affect outcome
B = Perceived benefit if preferred candidate wins
D = Social/Personal Gratification from voting and/or civic duty
C = Time, effort or financial cost to voting
The problem obviously lies with P. I have yet to hear of an election coming down to one vote, so the probability of any one individual’s vote affecting the outcome is effectively zero (although some people seem to be delusional about this as swing states typically have a higher voter turnout). Since P is multiplied by B (and there aren’t many good candidates either for that matter), B will also be zero.
That means that the only thing left is personal gratification and/or civic duty. That’s why the “Get out the Vote” and “Vote or Die” campaigns are constantly raging. They’re basically meant to either make people feel good to vote or shame them if they don’t vote (and vote for a certain candidate [wink, nod] of course). See South Park (warning, profanity ensues):
We’re all busy and there is simply not much to gain by voting. It’s the free rider problem; namely it’s certainly better for all of us to have a democracy than a dictatorship, but it’s even better if an individual has someone else do the work for them. Since voting individually will change nothing and there’s no monetary benefit, it’s basically just a waste of time. So why do it?
The civic duty bit is pretty much all we have going for us.
And this free rider principle creates an interesting set of other problems as well.
1) Those that care passionately about an issue are more likely to vote than those who don’t. So for example, if there’s a vote to increase the pay of a handful of government workers, most people don’t care. Their taxes will go up a few cents, but those that benefit will see their salaries raised significantly. Thus, they are much more likely to vote for said ballot measure. But after a bunch of this goes on, the dent these tax hikes make collectively to taxpayers’ paychecks start to add up.
Indeed, both of these issues are reasons I think democracy must come second to the rule of law. Perhaps that belief excuses more forgetfulness. Perhaps it wasn’t forgetfulness at all, maybe it was a principled stand against the tyranny of the majority.
Either way, this year P equaled zero… for every single race. No harm, no foul.
"Every day is a new life to the wise man."
The Righteous Mind
Star Slate Codex
Consulting by RPM