To Vote or Not?

by Stubborn Mule on 4 November 2008 · 5 comments

On the eve of the US election, occasional commenter here at the Stubborn Mule, Michael Michael, sent me links to a couple of articles on Slate on the merits of voting.  Of course, as an Australian citizen, I don’t have the option of voting in the US election, but the issues raised are relevant to democracies around the world.

In the first, Don’t vote, Steven E. Landsburg argued that the chances of your vote determining the result of the election are so slim that it would make more sense to play the lottery. In the second, Vote!, Jordan Ellenberg responds with a detailed mathematical analysis (including a dose of Bayesian inference) to argue that the odds of affecting the result, while long, are better than winning the lottery.

Landsburg gives passing comment to the most obvious counter to his argument:

The traditional reply begins with the phrase “But if everyone thought like that … .” To which the correct rejoinder is: So what? Everyone doesn’t think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions.

This is rather peculiar logic. If you write a piece arguing against voting you would expect, if the argument was sound, that readers would heed the advice. So arguing essentially on the basis that no-one would heed the advice seems rather like admitting defeat from the outset.

That is as much as I am prepared to say on the argument Landsburg makes because as far as I am concerned, asking whether your vote will decide the outcome is simply too narrow a measure of value in voting. I say this as someone who has always lived in safe seats (I grew up in one of the most blue-ribbon Liberal seats in the country and now live in a solid Labor heartland), so I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the value of my vote. So rather than fall into Ellenberg’s trap of arguing on the ground Landsburg has marked out, I will instead give some thoughts on broader reasons for voting.

The first of these thoughts centres on the notion of “mandate”, a term much beloved of a former prime minister here in Australia. Of course whoever wins an election has the right to make any and all decisions conferred by their office. However, in practice, the margin of the victory is very significant. Any new leader winning by a landslide will, rightly, feel they have a mandate for sweeping change. A victor by a narrow margin is often more cautious, with an eye on the next term. So whether or not your vote is the deciding one, it can add or detract from the strength of the victor’s mandate. This idea is one understood very well by the many voters in my electorate who vote for the Greens not because they are very likely to win, but to send a message to the winning Labor candidate.

Another consideration is the effect of low voter participation. Australia has compulsory voting, which means that voter participation rates are very high by international standards. In the US, however, participation hovers around the 50% rate. This means that much can be gained by campaigns to “turn out the vote”, which often target the more extreme ends of the political spectrum and lead to posturing by candidates which has little bearing on what will happen after the election. The “socialism” tag used by the McCain campaign to attack Obama is a good example. It may sway some voters on the right, but the reality of an Obama presidency would have little to do with socialism just as a McCain presidency would have little to do with combatting socialism. If more people were to vote in the US, the effectiveness of pandering to extremes would be diminished and candidates may be forced to focus more on their actual policies.

The last argument I will offer in favour of voting is perhaps an old chestnut, but a worthwhile chestnut nevertheless. It is the notion of civic duty. For those of us living in democracies, the means of determining who will run our country (or State, or school board, etc) is central to our way of life. Stepping out of the house on the odd occasion to participate in that process should not be seen as an annoying waste of time, but as an essential part of ensuring the continuation of our way of life. That may seem an overly-dramatic way to put it, but when you come to vote, it is worth taking the time to reflect on the significance of the act.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 markzero November 4, 2008 at 6:33 pm

I don’t see how it’s even a real question for people to ask themselves, as in the US we’ve never gone to the polls (as long as I’ve been alive, at least) to vote on Presidents without also voting for state and local officeholders, and very often bond issues and other items as well. Those can often be decided by very slim margins. So deciding whether to participate based on whether you can affect just the one race seems very silly. But if someone values those other things so little that they don’t even enter into the thought process when making a decision like this, perhaps it’s a good thing when they decide not to vote at all, rather than vote with poor information and/or with blind adherence to strict party lines.

2 James November 4, 2008 at 8:38 pm

I agree with you Mule. And as I always say, vote early and vote often!

3 Greg November 9, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Despite agreeing with almost all sentiment for taking part in the democratic process, I dont think its possible to deny that an individual vote wont make a difference.
Your counter:
“If you write a piece arguing against voting you would expect, if the argument was sound, that readers would heed the advice. So arguing essentially on the basis that no-one would heed the advice seems rather like admitting defeat from the outset.”
is cheating by redefining the question around a piece of media with the potential to influence great numbers of voters, I dont think anyone disagrees that media can affect an election! But the argument falls over for the guy who stays home and watches TV.

Its the same story for all of those $5 donations which gave Obama the mightiest war chest in US electoral history. Each individual donation genuinely didnt make a difference, but from the top down the system worked because enough people didnt care about that to donate.

An election outcome is a stochastic measure of the impetus to vote across the electorate, about which your personal decision is noise.
If you want to influence a democratic outcome, you need to affect the stochastic mean, which means actively altering significant numbers of other votes (eg handing out leaflets, badges and brownies or some such).

4 stubbornmule November 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm

@Greg: I completely agree. There is no doubt that an individual’s vote is mere noise in the electoral process. My primary contention is that deciding whether or not you should vote based on the likelihood that your vote will decide the outcome is a very narrow approach to the question.

So, if you want to ask the question: “how can the outcome be influenced?”, your approach of attacking the mean is the appropriate response. When it comes to the question “should I vote?”, I think you should look beyond the criterion of influencing the outcome.

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