Is It Rational to Vote?

Jeff Alworth

"[N]ever should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. … Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive."

The esteemed economist--err, freakonomist--Steven Levitt says you're insane to think your vote counts:

"Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. And in the modern era, elections that are close are always decided by the courts. There’s always litigation — look at what happened with Bush against Gore. So in no meaningful way can you say that your vote will ever decide an election. The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American — but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. … Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive."

Really? I've heard certain of my nihilistic friends say this, but I'm surprised to hear Levitt advance the case. It's true that as a mathematical proof, the idea that a single vote sways an election is mathematically as wrong as the idea that putting a dollar on the Lotto is a sure way to riches. But there's a logical fallacy here.

Let's try a thought experiment. Let's select a population of people, say 51% in a given precinct (state legislative race, statewide race, federal race--doesn't matter). Now, we assign half the population the belief that voting doesn't matter; the other half we invest with the idea that it matters a great deal. We hold an election. What happens?

(Although it goes without saying, the underlying assumption here is that elections matter. We assume, for example, that Gore would not have extended tax cuts to the wealthy or invaded Iraq; that McCain wouldn't have pushed for universal health care. And so on down to state legislative races. So we assume the person we select in a given race will affect the public policy that gets enacted.)

Of course, we actually run this experiment in real time. One group who think elections don't matter are the young. Another are the poor. One group thinks they matter a lot--the elderly. Also the rich. And guess what? Public policy reflects these voting patterns!

Another way we know votes matter is because we can see how hard politicians work to get them. Candidates for local office will literally come to your door and ask you for your vote. Why? Because it's usually the case that the person who does a better job reaching individuals wins their vote. So they work extremely hard for each vote. Can you imagine an election in which a politician said: "Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive than voting for me"? Clearly, politicians think your vote matters.

I think what Levitt makes mistaking politics for a math equation. It's true that the marginal difference in any election is almost certainly going to be greater than a single vote. It does not follow, however, that every single vote doesn't matter. And therein lies the great paradox of group action.

For what it's worth, Andrew Gelman, a Stats and Poly Sci prof at Columbia, offers his own refutation. Personally, I think mine's better.

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    I'm not sure your response is a refutation to Levitt's point, Jeff. It's more like a different way of evaluating behavior. Levitt is talking about isolated, individual behavior. You're describing multiple people acting as part of a class or group.

    The poor or the young aren't undervalued politically because a single young or poor person doesn't vote but because (as you point out) a larger share of those groups don't vote than other groups within the electorate.

    If individuals randomly decide not to vote, it shouldn't affect the results of an election. But the propensity to vote is not random. It tends to be affected by the extent to which members of a group believe their vote matters, which I think is your point. Consequently, believing your vote matters becomes, collectively, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Ironically, to the extent Levitt's article persuades people not to vote, its effect will presumably not be random. Henceforth, economic nerds will be underrepresented at the polls.

    Is that a good or a bad thing? Hmmmm.

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      It's true--it is a different way. I find Levitt's point both blithe and slightly arrogant--and also accurate only in the most narrow, literal sense. Of course, very few people vote because they believer their vote will swing an election all by itself. They understand the effect of group effort and their individual role in it.

      Of course, Levitt himself probably doesn't believe his point literally, and agrees that it's actually not irrational to vote. It is slightly paradoxical, but only if considered in tiniest context. He advantages himself of the paradox to make a clever(ish) point that is of little utility.

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        A vote is a little like a lottery ticket. You almost certainly won't win or decide the outcome, but the chance to do so however remote is worth the cost for a lot of people.

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    Depends on who you define as "the rich" but they're likely not as big as a voting group as the poor (though they pay more attention to the actions of elected officials). They rich are, however, a main source of campaign contributions, and hire lobbyists - two other reasons for candidates to pay attention to them.

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    I've been calling this the "applause effect".

    In a large and crowded venue - say, at a football or basketball game - it makes no difference whether you're clapping. You can stop clapping without any fear that the stadium will fall quiet (and thus making life for the visiting team more pleasant). But if everyone thought that way, the stadium would, in fact, fall quiet. So, next time you're at Autzen, Reser, Civic, or the Rose Garden, ponder that.

    The power of a single person clapping and cheering is exactly akin to the power of a single person voting -- individually irrelevant, but it's critical that every individual is part of the movement.

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    What if you hate both teams on the field? And no other teams are allowed to play?

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    Jim- because it was high stakes, The National Championship, I'd guess most Beavers were rooting for the Ducks. On the other hand, I'd heard that most Crimson Tide were rooting against the War Eagles/Tigers.

    So you're saying that we must vote Dem in order to stave off total calamity- the stakes are that high.

    Hmmm- this week Obama proposed conjuring a legal framework for unlimited preventative detention.

    My point being that even the lesser of the two evils, these days, is getting to be totally unsupportable.

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    And FDR sent West Coast Japanese-Americans to prison camps. What electoral position should Dems/progressives have taken toward FDR's presidency and his New Deal programs?

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    Jim- in the case of Obama we have absolutely no mitigating factor such as there being a progressive domestic program on economics or social insurance. Sure, if Obama were following Robert Reich's or Paul Krugman's or Joseph Stiglitz's advice on domestic issues, that would mitigate the horrible breach of the Constitution that I mentioned.

    Richard Nixon was more progressive on the economic agenda than is Obama.

    Today, Ben Stein suggested the GOP nominate Obama as their standard bearer for 2012. Of course they won't do that, but I do think Obama will draw a lot more GOp votes in 2012 than he did in '08, and for good reasons. And Obama will be re-elected.

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    And no doubt an answer to my post would be: What about the "Obamacare" health insurance bill? I'm with the progressives on that: the main thing about it is hundreds of billions in subsidy to private, for-profit insurance.

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