Monday, October 25, 2004

The Voter's Paradox (or Why I'm Glad That My Vote Doesn't Matter)

I am about to make you very angry. Are you ready? Okay, here goes: your vote doesn't really matter.

If you are like the majority of people, the least contention that your vote isn't vital and significant will, most likely, raise hackles. Never the less, it's a mathematically demonstrable fact that in the majority of elections, your vote will, literally, not make any difference to the outcome. I'll be explaining why but, just in case your blood pressure starts to get the better of you, it is my intention to show you that this is a good and liberating thing that will actually end up giving you a greater feeling of empowerment at the voting booth.

The idea that individual votes don't matter in large elections is typically referred to as The Voter's Paradox. There are actually a numbers of voter's paradoxes that deal with various counter-intuitive features of democratic government. The particular version that I am referencing is part of a class of social paradoxes where the cost of individual action in a group endeavor is not matched by the specific benefits of the action.

The reason that voting falls into this category is that cost and effort of actually going to cast one's vote is not matched by the value of the vote that is cast. This runs contrary to what most people are taught from a very young age, which is the view that voting is not only a cornerstone of democracy but that it is utterly vital for every person to vote because each person's vote matters.

The objective value of any given vote can be measured as the likelihood that the vote will swing the election. Let us suppose that there is a two person race for candidate A and B and there are three persons voting (we'll suppose, for the sake of simplification that the candidates are not, themselves, voting). In such a contest, there are two ways for your fellow voters to agree with each other (they both like A or they both like B), in which case your vote is irrelevant, but there are also two ways for them to disagree (one likes A and the other likes B, or vice versa), in which case your vote is the deciding vote. As such, your vote has a base value of .5, meaning that 50% of the time, your vote will determine the winner.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of how probabilities work in the real world. Never the less, it is an incontrovertible fact that the more people there are participating in a given election, the less probable it is that your particular vote will be able to decide the election. An intuitive way to grasp this fact is to play a what-if game with yourself. Think about all of the elections you have cast a vote in. Now ask yourself which, of all those elections, would have had a different outcome if you had stayed home, instead. The answer, if you are being honest with yourself, is probably that none of them would have. If your vote would have decided an election, it is almost certain that it must have been a very small election.

This is the point of the argument where a lot of people start to get upset. The implication seems to be that voting is worthless. Many people counter with bad analogies involving such things as rain drops and oceans. The paradox, however, is not that voting is worthless but that any given vote is worthless in terms of making a difference to the outcome of a sufficiently large election. Bluntly, the contention that each vote is an important factor in terms of electing a given candidate is a myth. It is a potent and cherished myth but a myth all the same.

But wait, what about Florida? The presidential election of 2000 was, in fact, exceedingly close. The final count of the critical Florida ballots gave the state to Bush on the basis of only 537 votes. New Mexico's margin was even thinner at 363 votes (although New Mexico could not, by itself, have swung the Presidency for Gore). In such a large election as this was, such small margins are nearly without precedent. It is, therefore, accurate to say that the worth of the individual votes for the citizens of Florida was far higher than usual. However, far from being a repudiation of the Voter's Paradox, Florida is a demonstration of its reality.

Once more, we have to ask ourselves, which one of those votes would have changed the outcome. While 537 people, in the aggregate, could have changed the outcome of the election, no single one of them could have, in spite of the closeness of the results. In fact, one of the things that lead to the tedious cycle of recounts was the fact that the margin of victory was within the typical margins of error for counting votes. In a normal election contest of this magnitude, no one would care about getting the numbers precisely accurate because the margin of victory would be wide enough that five hundred votes, plus or minus, wouldn't be significant enough to consider (never mind the specific vote of a particular person).

Many of the articles that I've read that pertain to the Voter's tend to take a pessimistic view because of it. This is, of course, a natural conclusion. On the one hand, we have a form of government that requires people to vote, en mass, but which can not justify the effort to vote on a per voter basis. If my vote literally does not matter, why should I bother? It is my belief, however, that a proper understanding of the value of your vote can, in fact, liberate it.

Often people bemoan the fact that we have a de facto two party system. Numerous opinion polls have shown that many people would like to vote for so-called third party candidates but that they are reluctant to do so because they don't want to "throw away" their vote. Such a stance is a rational conclusion based on a faulty evaluation. If your vote did have a realistic probability of swinging an election, it would be foolish to squander it on a vote of a candidate who couldn't use your vote to carry the race. In such a circumstance, rational self-interest dictates that you should vote for whichever of the electable candidates most closely represents your interests. Such a tactic does, unfortunately, have the practical result that you are often forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

When your vote doesn't have any real chance of influencing the outcome, however, there is no barrier to voting your conscience. An uninfluential vote remains uninfluential regardless of how it's spent. So long as you are voting at all, you can vote for the candidate that you believe is the best qualified without any fear that you've sabotaged your rational interests.

One might reasonably ask why one should vote at all, if this is true. I think that the best answer to that is that voting serves two functions. The primary function is, in fact, to elect candidates to public office. In those terms, whether or not an individual votes is largely irrelevant. The more subtle secondary function, however, is that voting ideally provides a snapshot of the public psyche. In order for that to work, however, it is critical that people do vote their consciences. By looking at the full range of votes, those who do take office can better understand their constituencies. For this purpose, every additional vote enhances the “resolution” of the process, providing a cumulatively more accurate picture of the electorate's will.

In truth, even for this purpose, the real worth of a given vote is small enough that one could, in good conscience, abstain from the process entirely without having to feel guilty. As such, the question remains: why vote?

Ultimately, the act of voting is something that we do because it makes us feel good. We have every right to feel good about it because, however attenuated our own votes may be, the act of voting connects us to the political process in a very literal and direct sense. I believe that there is value in this that goes beyond the magnitude of our individual contributions and which also makes it more than worth the effort that it takes to vote. The value may, in a strictly objective sense, be more symbolic than practical, but symbols and symbolic acts can have a potency all to their own.

It is because I consider my vote to have this kind of worth that I am loath to squander it on the foolish supposition that I could "throw it away" by voting for the person who I honestly believe to be the best for the job. The Voter's Paradox assures me that I can cast an honest vote with an entirely clear conscience.

Now just imagine what might happen if everyone had the confidence to do that instead of wasting their votes on lesser evils.

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