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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Exercise Your Right to Vote!

You have more options than you may think.

I plan on not voting today.

First, I would rather not endorse the prevailing mythology that democracy effectively reflects political preferences.  Second, there is only a vanishingly small chance that my vote will influence any federal, state, or local political race (and that goes even for some pretty close ones), save those that involve only a handful of voters.  These reasons are related.

Why Is Voting Futile?

My vote would have about the same effect on the outcome of an election as my cheering at Yankee Stadium would have on the outcome of a game.  Indeed, the only situation in which my vote would serve to elect my preferred candidate, in the same way that my paying $5 will buy my preferred sandwich, is if my vote were the tie-breaker.  The likelihood of that is, as you can imagine, very, very small, especially when the number of voters is at all large.

You might want to watch this amusing little video featuring Gordon Tullock, one of the pioneers of the approach to political economy known as Public Choice.  It does a good job of capturing some important aspects of what economists call “the paradox of voting.”

In particular, given the cost of voting and the extremely low probability that any given single voter under majority or plurality rule will cast the tie-breaker, why would anyone choose to vote?  And this applies even to the relatively close elections we’ve seen lately, because ex ante no one could have known beforehand that these were going to be so close and planned accordingly.

The fact is, however, that people do vote, and in some major elections in the United States the turnout is well over 50 percent of eligible voters.  That’s the paradox:  Voting one’s political preferences by itself is highly unlikely to generate any net benefit, yet many people do vote.

What Mythology?

Economists James M. Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan try to resolve this (you can find a gated version of the1984 article here) by arguing that while the very low probabilities involved may mean that voting merely to express one’s political preferences may not be very rational, other activities related to voting may be valuable enough to the voter to outweigh the cost of voting.  So while she may not reasonably believe that her vote per se matters to the outcome (though some people still do cling to that belief), she may vote anyway because she enjoys the act of voting itself, or likes the status it gives her at social gatherings, and so forth.

It’s like when a person who prefers Puccini to Mozart chooses to go to see a performance of Mozart instead of Puccini, simply because she wants to be seen by more people as “someone who goes to the opera.”  If enough opera-goers do that, the programmers at the opera house will not really know whether they are putting on the kind of opera that their patrons really prefer.

In the case of voting, however, this is usually the case.  A person may vote, but not solely or even mostly to express her political preferences.  And to that extent that that’s the case, the idea that voting = democracy = expressing the will of the people (or even simply one’s own political preferences) is indeed a myth.

My Right to Vote

Some might argue that the right to vote entails the obligation to vote, perhaps because they heard somewhere that every right entails an obligation.  When I’ve talked about the paradox of voting before the general public, usually someone will tell me that as an American citizen I have an obligation to vote.  Sometimes she is quite passionate about it.

Now there might be an ethical system in which I am indeed obliged to vote if I do have this right, but regarding the rights-obligations relation I’m talking about here, the argument is wrong.  The obligation entailed in my right to vote is not that I must vote.

The Constitution of the United States guarantees my right to free speech, but that doesn’t oblige me to go around making political speeches.  Rather, the obligation entailed here is for others not to interfere with the exercise of my right.  I am exercising my right to free speech just as much by remaining silent as when I speak out.

Again, someone might object that a society won’t remain free if one doesn’t vocally endorse or oppose political actions from time to time.  She may have a point.  The case is much, much weaker, however, when it comes to voting.

Finally, it doesn’t matter politically (though it probably does matter in some other sense) whether my not speaking or not voting is the result of calculation or sloth.  My not having to justify myself in these matters is an important part of living a free society.  (My doing so here is purely voluntary.)

I do take my right to vote seriously.  I am very glad that I have it and grateful to those who have helped to preserve it.  And so, like millions of other Americans, I will exercise my right to vote today – by not voting.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.