My attitude towards voting is simple: as an expressive act, a form of signaling, it is fine. For any other purpose which comes to mind it is not fine. It is at best ignorant and at worst an attempt at deceit for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
I put things so starkly because I would like to clear more room for folks to say "I voted because I like to vote" and have that be accepted as a valid reason with no need for further justification. I would also for there to be more space for folks to abstain without opprobrium. During this season these are priorities of mine for both normative and positive reasons. Normatively, because it drives me batty when people feel the need to claim that the simple act of voting -- cheap talk if there ever was such a thing* -- is Virtuous and Good and Efficacious, while abstaining is Derelict and Uncivil and Defeatist**. Such a sentiment is not purely expressive; it is moralism of questionable provenance (I'll get back to that), it is not uncommon, and this moralism is sometimes draped in the cloth of pseudo-science.
Which leads to the positive concern: I am a political scientist, and every theoretical model and empirical finding in political science of which I am aware suggests that voting for instrumental reasons has no justification under any reasonable assumptions about the state of the world. In fact, the logic of democracy means that if that were not the case then the democracy would be malfunctioning, likely in ways which would call the act of voting even further into question.
In swing states (or for close non-presidential elections), though, it’s a different story Aaron, Nate, and I have estimated the probability of your vote being decisive in a swing state as being in the range 1 in a million to 1 in 10 million. Low, but not zero, and Aaron, Noah, and I argue that it can be make sense to vote because of the social benefits that a voter might feel arise from his or her preferred candidate winning.Here's Arena:
Your vote is not going to decide which candidate wins. It's not. As Levitt says, when it gets close, they go to the courts. You know what else is a fabulous indicator that it's a flat-out lie that every vote counts? The fact that media outlets will announce which candidate won each state before election officials are done counting the votes. Can you ask for more explicit evidence than that? They literally do not count all the votes before determining the winner, and yet people say that every vote counts. Are you kidding me? Or do you just not know that words have meanings? Even in those cases where it's really close, the final vote count is going to be contested, at least at the presidential level. At that point, the outcome depends upon whose definition of a valid vote prevails, not whether you, dear reader, cast a vote for your preferred candidate.Which is correct. It is not, in my opinion, the best part of Phil's post -- that would be the part where he attacks the self-righteousness of voters who think that if they were the deciding vote the Whole Wide World would be much off -- but it is a valid rebuttal. To my knowledge no national election has ever come down to a single vote, and if it ever did it would be litigated for centuries.
Even still Arena is giving Gelman's argument more credit than it deserves. In fact, Gelman doesn't have an argument. He simply pretends as if there was a utility function out there such that it would make sense for people to vote at 1/10,000,000 odds (those are only the swing state voters, not the median or modal or otherwise typical voter). So far as I know no such utility function has ever been modeled or tested against peoples' actual subjective utilities, and Arena points out numerous analogous situations in which folks generally behave differently -- getting in a car crash, getting shot while on campus, etc. -- despite similar or better (worse?) odds. Is it possible that someone somewhere fits the bill? Sure, there are extreme outliers. But that's now what Gelman is driving at, even including the caveats. Over 100,000,000 million people will vote in this election. How many of them will have anything even close to 1/10,000,000 chance of being the decisive vote? 0.00001% of them, at most? That leaves the other 99.99999% in need of explanation, and quite frankly I find that a bit more interesting and important.
It gets still worse for Gelman. His entire argument is a political science version of Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager is exceptionally easy to dispute as a simple matter of logic and probability (see here for a few easy ways), so if we wanted to we could simply dismiss Gelman on grounds of absurdity and move on.
But it's even worse than that, because Pascal's Wager assumes that if you win the bet the reward is infinite. That was Pascal's entire justification for taking the gamble. It is also one of its logical flaws. Gelman doesn't go quite so far, mercifully, but as Arena usefully points out Gelman's view of voting "as equivalent to the purchase of a lottery ticket which, if it wins, corresponds to a huge donation to a charity" has a view of politics which is the antithesis of all actually existing political science theory (of which I'm aware). Political science models elections as something very different from charitable giving. As Arena puts it:
We have very good reason to believe that, no matter who wins, close to half of the population will suffer an enormous loss of subjective utility on election night. The very fact that so many people think that the outcome of the election matters is itself evidence that if your vote could determine the outcome of the election, it would not be at all like buying a lottery ticket to help the poor. No one, not no one, is going to feel devastated if a stranger randomly gives them money for no reason. Voting is much more akin to buying a lottery ticket in the hopes hiring a bunch of thieves to rob half of the country so that you can give the stuff they steal to the other half of the country.
In any case, the point is that Gelman supposes -- like Pascal -- that there are no costs for being wrong. If you lose the
So Gelman contradicts political science theory. The median voter theorem might not be perfect in practice, but refinements to it have generally been marginal, not qualitative. They are attempts to uncover why the median voter theorem is somewhat less than perfect. (Search Google Scholar.) Indeed, the more perfect a democracy is, the more closely the median voter theorem will approximate reality. Achieving the will of the median voter is, after all, the entire point of democracy. This suggests that the better the democracy functions, the less valuable it will be to win an election, since the loser will be pretty close to the median voter anyway (in fact, arbitrarily as close as the winner). Which means that the expected value of voting for instrumental purposes -- which already approximates zero -- shrinks to even more closely approximate zero. At the limit it won't matter at all***.
All of this assumes that the president is omnipotent upon taking office. In reality, the expected value of one's vote being the decisive one collapses even more (if it can collapse further) by virtue of having to deal with constraints from two legislatures, the judiciary, the Constitution and other previous law, the electoral college system (or other voting rules, e.g. proportional representation schemes), and the shadow of future elections. So once we're talking about the odds of buying a lottery ticket not to win an election but to actually influence policy in a tangible way that benefits the majority, we must be in 1 in several billions odds at least. Still rational? At some point it must not be for essentially everyone. If not here, then where?
Moreover, Gelman's approach suggests that voters should not vote pragmatically, and should instead vote their conscience. After all, the chance that your vote is the deciding one which elects Romney is 1 in 10 million and with Gary Johnson it's maybe 1 in 100 million, but suppose a Johnson presidency is much more valuable to you than a Romney presidency: what's a few more decimal places among friends? Yet very few people do such a thing. They vote for a candidate that "has a chance of winning", a "viable candidate". As a rule they don't want to "waste their vote". This suggests to me that people are not voting their conscience, are not taking
I don't want to push the point too terribly far since revealed preference arguments are often troubled, but my best read of the situation is that people vote for candidates that they do not prefer ("lesser of two evils"), in a situation in which the probability that their vote is decisive is approximately zero, when even if it was decisive the gains would be slight and perhaps imperceptible on balance****, all for one reason: they like to be on the winning team. They like to "contribute" to the victory, because even if the "contribution" has no effect on the outcome they can feel as if it did. It's sports fandom, electoral politics -- not all politics -- is a game, and voters are the guy sitting at home watching it on television while wearing a rally cap*****.
I have no problem with that until the point that the
Personally, I think that anyone who really thinks that empowering their preferred party would make (most) everyone better off and (nearly) no one worse off should be disqualified from teaching political science, but maybe that's just me. At any rate, you're either profoundly insensitive to the well-being of approximately half of the population or so confident that you know what's best for them that you'd be willing to impose an outcome on them that they expressly oppose, which still means that you're insensitive to their short-term happiness. That may not make you stupid, but it doesn't say anything particularly flattering about you either.If people wish to vote as a consumption good, they have as much of my support as they'd have if they chose to stay home and play Call of Duty on November 6th instead. The marginal effect on societal welfare is the same in either case. We would not accept as valid any argument from the gamer that (s)he has improved the lot of fellow (wo)men by pushing buttons; why accept as valid an argument from the voter that (s)he has improved the lot of fellow (wo)men by pushing levers in a voting booth?
And we would all be better off if we understood that politics is mostly not about elections.
*Don't think so? What do you think would happen to the number of voters if we charged a nominal fee -- say, $3 -- for the privilege of voting?
**The very worst are those who say "I don't care who you vote for, just vote." Why? If they don't care who I vote for then they must not care about the outcome of the election. And if they don't care about the outcome of the election then why are they voting? The statement practically contradicts itself, unless they just want to see people waste their time. In which case they are cleverer than I.
***And if it does matter -- if democracy is sufficiently imperfect that it could -- and if it could be corrected -- if greater participation pulled policy closer to the median voter -- on the utilitarian grounds that Gelman has proposed only voters that would pull the results back towards the median voter should vote.
****Or even worse. Suppose you voted for Obama in 2008 because you wanted a universal health care system, and you (against all odds) were the deciding vote. You get your health care plan, but probably not in any form which was ex ante recognizable or maybe even desirable. Meanwhile you lie awake at night thinking about the thousands dead from drone strikes, the continuation of the War on Drugs, the continuing expansion of executive prerogative, and a host of other downsides. Yes but it's better than McCain you think but is that really true? Even if it is how much consolation is it? I don't think I'd even want to be the deciding vote.
*****In other words, they are me when the Cardinals are in the playoffs. Not a pretty picture.