Wearing an “I Voted” sticker on Election Day announces that you are a proud participant in the grand tradition of representative democracy, the worst system except all the others. It says “I care,” “I’m informed,” and perhaps also “this shirt is machine washable.”
On that day (November 6! Mark your calendars!), when Americans are resting from their quadrennial labors of locating a polling place, standing in line, and pushing buttons, pulling levers, filling bubbles, or poking a touch screen, there is a surefire way to start a fight in any bar, church, or bus in the country. Three little words: I don’t vote.
Voting is widely thought to be one of the most important things a person can do. But the reasons people give for why they vote (and why everyone else should too) are flawed, unconvincing, and sometimes even dangerous. The case for voting relies on factual errors, misunderstandings about the duties of citizenship, and overinflated perceptions of self-worth. There are some good reasons for some people to vote some of the time. But there are a lot more bad reasons to vote, and the bad ones are more popular.
‘Every Vote Counts’
Let’s start with the basics: Your vote will almost certainly not determine the outcome of any public election. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories regarding rigged elections or malfunctioning voting machines—although both of those things have happened and will happen again. I’m not talking about swing states or Supreme Court power grabs or the weirdness of the Electoral College. I’m talking about pure, raw math.
In all of American history, a single vote has never determined the outcome of a presidential election. And there are precious few examples of any other elections decided by a single vote. A 2001 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. Of the 40,000 state legislative elections they examined, encompassing about 1 billion votes cast, only seven were decided by a single vote (two were tied). A 1910 Buffalo contest was the lone single-vote victory in a century’s worth of congressional races. In four of the 10 ultra-close campaigns flagged in the paper, further research by the authors turned up evidence that subsequent recounts unearthed margins larger than the official record initially suggested.
The numbers just get more ridiculous from there. In a 2012 Economic Inquiry article, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman, statistician Nate Silver, and University of California, Berkeley, economist Aaron Edlin use poll results from the 2008 election cycle to calculate that the chance of a randomly selected vote determining the outcome of a presidential election is about one in 60 million. In a couple of key states, the chance that a random vote will be decisive creeps closer to one in 10 million, which drags voters into the dubious company of people gunning for the Mega-Lotto jackpot. The authors optimistically suggest that even with those terrible odds, you may still choose to vote because “the payoff is the chance to change national policy and improve (one hopes) the lives of hundreds of millions, compared to the alternative if the other candidate were to win.” But how big does that payoff have to be to make voting worthwhile?
‘Voting Is an Investment in the Future’
If you ask a man on the street why rich people are more likely to vote for Republicans, he will probably tell you a story about how the GOP promotes policies that favor businesses and lower the tax burden of the wealthiest people in society. But your sidewalk interlocutor is wrong on two counts. First, rich people are not more likely to vote Republican. (It was a trick question.) Second, study after study, poll after poll, finds that people do not typically vote in ways that align with their personal material interests. The old, for instance, don’t support Social Security in higher numbers than the young.
In their seminal 1993 book Decision and Democracy: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press), University of Virginia philosopher and reason Contributing Editor Loren Lomasky and his co-author, Geoffrey Brennan, offer an alternative theory of what drives voters. But first they offer a methodology for calculating the value of a vote. On their account, the expected utility of a vote is a function of the probability that the vote will be decisive, delivering gains (to the individual or society as a whole) if the preferred candidate wins. The probability of casting the decisive vote decreases slowly as the size of the voting pool gets larger, but it drops dramatically when polls show that one candidate has even a slight lead. Which means that in a presidential election, where the number of voters is about 120 million and one candidate is usually polling a point or two ahead on Election Day, you’re screwed.
In his brilliant 2011 book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press), on which I have relied heavily for this article, Georgetown University philosopher Jason Brennan (no relation to Geoffrey Brennan) applied the Lomasky/Brennan method to a hypothetical scenario in which the victory of one candidate would produce additional GDP growth of 0.25 percent in one year. Assuming a very close election where that candidate is leading in the polls only slightly and a random voter has a 50.5 percent chance of casting a ballot for her, the expected value of a vote for that candidate is $4.77 x 10 to the −2,650th power. That’s 2,648 orders of magnitude less than a penny.
It’s not hard to beat that offer. Say you plan to sleep for an extra hour instead of voting. Unless you are astonishingly well rested, an hour of sleep is almost certainly worth more to you than an infinitesimal fragment of a penny. Or say you plan to use that time to write an election-related blog post. The expected social payoff of even the lowest-traffic blog post is higher than the payoff from voting. In fact, an alternative activity plan isn’t even necessary: Simply not driving to the polls slightly reduces the chance that you or someone else will die in a car accident on Election Day, which is worth more than your vote can ever hope to be.
Those figures reflect 2006 GDP figures and 2004 voting totals, but it almost doesn’t matter what batch of reasonable numbers you plug into the equation. Say you think victory is worth 10 or 100 or 1,000 times more than the roughly $33 billion that 0.25 percent of GDP amounts to. Say the polls show a gap of two percentage points between the candidates. In any plausible scenario, the expected utility of your vote still amounts to approximately bupkes. A vote for a third-party candidate pushes the figure into even more infinitesimal territory.
Voters know this on some level. If they truly believed that each person’s vote could be the vote, imagine how they would treat people who disagree with them in early November. Voter suppression happens occasionally, of course. Unscrupulous actors send out flyers that give the wrong date for Election Day or mislead voters about the correct polling place. But if people were operating on the theory that your vote actually counts, far dirtier tricks would be happening everywhere, every day.
‘Voting Is a Civic Duty’
No individual vote is likely to determine the outcome of an election; nor is it likely to result in a material gain for the voter. Does that mean people who vote are irrational, evil, or stupid? Not necessarily. Or at least not all of them.
In October 2000, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw penned a column for Fortune called “Why Some People Shouldn’t Vote.” During his years-long stint as a columnist for the magazine, this was the only article the editors refused to run. The column, which he published on his personal blog years later, suggests that “the next time a friend of yours tells you he’s not voting, don’t try to change his mind.”
Mankiw’s argument draws on a 1996 article by economists Timothy Feddersen of Northwestern University and Wolfgang Pesendorfer of Princeton University that cites the phenomenon of “roll off”—people who make it all the way inside the polyester curtains on Election Day and then leave some blanks on their ballots—to illustrate the point that people who believe themselves ill-informed routinely choose not to vote, thereby increasing the quality of voters who actually pull the lever for one side or the other. There is some additional evidence for this claim: Education is one of the two best predictors of voter turnout (the other is age). Better-educated people are much more likely to vote, which suggests that the pool of voters is better informed and more qualified to make election-related judgments than the pool of nonvoters.