Political Ignorance

Every Vote Does Count—But the Chance it Will Make a Difference is Still Ridiculously Low

A recent Virginia election decided by one vote has given new life to the mantra that "every vote counts." But the chance of a single vote making a difference remains extraordinarily low, and this reality incentivizes voters to be ignorant and biased.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


A recent Virginia state legislative election which was decided by a single vote has stimulated predictable reassertions of the mantra that "every vote counts," and claims that a single vote has great power. The one vote margin not only determined the fate of a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, but also likely ensured that the House would be equally split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, as opposed to having a 51-49 GOP majority [but see update below].

It is indeed true that every vote made a difference in this case and a handful of other elections decided by one vote. But focusing on such rare instances obscures the reality that the overwhelming majority of elections (well over 99.9%) are not decided by a single vote. In these cases, the absence of any one vote would not have made any difference.

In a certain way, it is indeed true that "every vote counts." Each vote is included in the total, and each has a tiny chance of being decisive. But this is true in the same sense that we can say that "every lottery ticket counts" because each ticket gets tallied and each has a tiny chance of winning the jackpot. In a US presidential election, the chance that any one vote will be decisive is roughly 1 in 60 million. The odds are better in congressional, state, or local elections. But they are still usually thousands or even millions to one.

Despite its misleading nature, the "every vote counts" mantra might be defended on the ground that it is a kind of "noble lie" that encourages civic participation. Even if most votes don't count in any meaningful sense, it might be desirable for citizens to think that they do, and act accordingly.

The problem is that, while "every vote counts" and similar slogans do encourage people to vote, they don't do much to ensure that we will do so in an informed way. Even a very low probability of casting a decisive ballot is often enough to make it rational to undertake the small effort of casting a ballot for the lesser of the available evils. But, as the persistence of widespread voter ignorance shows, it is not enough to incentivize most voters to invest the much greater time and effort needed to inform themselves about the candidates and issues at stake. While most people may not know the exact odds, they do have a sense that there is little payoff from spending large amounts of time studying political issues—at least not if the only reason is to cast a better vote. Thus, we end up with elections where millions vote, but the vast majority are ignorant about many of the issues at stake. Politicians, activists, and interest groups, are well aware of this reality, and routinely exploit public ignorance for their gain—and our loss.

In addition to being poorly informed, most voters also tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of the political information they do learn. Keeping our biases and prejudices under control is often difficult. Few people are willing to make the effort in situations where it is highly unlikely to make any difference to the outcome. For that reason, most people are far more biased in evaluating political information than otherwise similar information that relates to nonpolitical private sector decisions. Such behavior by individual voters is rational and understandable. The ignorance and bias of any one voter matters very little. But, sadly, ignorant voting is a situation where individually rational actions can lead to harmful collective outcomes. When all or most of entire electorate tends to be ignorant and biased, we end up with deeply flawed leaders, and harmful government policies.

If we want our choices to really count, in the sense of having a substantial chance of making a difference, we should make fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by "voting with our feet." When we choose what jurisdiction to live in in a federal system, or make choices in the private sector, the decisions we make really do affect outcomes for ourselves and our families, which gives us stronger incentives to seek out information and use it wisely. We can expand opportunities for foot voting by limiting and decentralizing government power, and by breaking down barriers to mobility—particularly those that inhibit the poor.

At best, "every vote counts" is a comforting distortion. At worst, it diverts attention away from the painful reality that individual votes don't count enough to ensure that we have a well-informed electorate. It also leads all too many citizens to overlook the need to empower people to make choices that really do count.

Constant invocations of "every vote counts" are usually motivated by a well-intentioned desire to increase turnout. But we should worry less about how many people turn up at the polls, and more about the quality of the decisions they make once they get there.

UPDATE: Soon after I posted the above, a court decision changed the result in the Virginia House of Delegates election by counting a vote in favor of the Republican candidate that had been previously been considered void. As a result, the election is now tied. If this ruling holds, the seat—and with it control of House of Delegates—will be decided by a coin toss or a drawing of lots. In in a sense every vote still did matter in this race, because all were necessary to ensure it was a tie rather than a one-vote victory for one side or the other.

The Washington Post describes the details of the court decision and its consequences here:

A three-udge panel declined to certify the recount of a key House race today, saying that a questionable ballot should be counted in favor of the Republican and tying a race that Democrats had thought they had won by a single vote.

"The court declares there is no winner in this election," said Newport News Circuit Court Judge Bryant L. Sugg, after the judges deliberated for more than two hours.

He said the ballot in question contained a mark for Democrat Shelly Simonds as well as a mark for Republican Del. David Yancey but that the voter had made another mark to strike out Simonds' name….

The court's decision leaves the race for the 94th District tied at 11,608 votes each for Yancey and Simonds. And it leaves the balance of power in the state legislature at 49-51, in favor of Republicans—at least for now. In the case of a tie in a House race, state law says the winner is chosen by lot – essentially, a coin toss.

James Alcorn, the chairman of the state board of elections, said the winner will likely be chosen by drawing a name out of a glass bowl. He said he is conferring with staff to figure out the date and method.

But it doesn't end there. If the loser of the coin toss is unhappy with that result, he or she can seek a second recount.