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Why Do People Vote?

Voting is a supremely irrational act.

Why millions of people turn out to vote in every national election in the United States and other large democracies is one of the persistent mysteries in the rational choice theory of politics. Why do people vote?

If you think about it, voting in a large national election — such as the US Presidential election — is a supremely irrational act, because the probability that your vote will make a difference in the outcome is infinitesimally small.

The closest Presidential election in history was the 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. In that election, Kennedy’s margin in the popular vote over Nixon was 118,574. Disregarding for the moment the complexity of the electoral college system, it means that the probability that any one voter will influence the outcome of the 1960 election was 1/118,574 = .00000843355. The probability is usually much, much smaller than that.

In the 2000 Presidential election, if you happened to live in one of the four crucial counties in Florida, your probability of affecting the outcome was much greater (though still very small), but then you’d have to multiply that probability by a very small probability that you’d happen to find yourself voting in such a crucial county, and the end product is even smaller than .00000843355 (except that, in that particular Presidential election, the loser received more popular votes than the winner — the complexity of the electoral college system).

Any way you slice it, voting is irrational. One person’s vote is never going to make any difference in a large national election. If your favorite candidate is going to win, she’s going to win even if you don’t vote for her. If your favorite candidate is going to lose, he’s going to lose even if you vote for him. The inescapable conclusion is that, contrary to popular belief and government propaganda, your vote does not count. So why do millions of people expend their own time, energy, and money to cast a vote that will not make any difference in the electoral outcome?

One reason that people often offer for voting is “But what if everybody thought that way?” The reasoning goes that, if everybody thought that voting was irrational and a waste of time, nobody would vote and democracy would collapse.

This is known as magical thinking, and it is a very common fallacy. People often believe that what they do or how they think influences other people and others will think and behave like they do. So, in this manifestation of magical thinking, people believe that, if they bother to vote, everybody else in the country will also vote, and the American democracy will thrive, but if they don’t bother to vote, then everybody else in the country will think like them, nobody will vote, and the American democracy will collapse.

Of course, this is a fallacy. Your decision to vote or not will not affect whether or not other people will vote (unless you are a highly influential person and you announce your voting intention to the world in advance of the election).

Another reason for voting, offered by political scientists and lay individuals alike, is that it is a civic duty of every citizen in a democratic country to vote in elections. It’s not about trying to affect the electoral outcome; it’s about doing your duty as a democratic citizen by voting in elections.

This reasoning fails on at least two separate grounds. First, civic duty to uphold democracy has the same problem as affecting the electoral outcome as a reason to vote. One person does not make any difference in the collective outcome as it takes a large majority of the citizenry to uphold democracy. If democracy were to be upheld, it will be upheld without your voting; if it were to collapse, it will collapse even if you voted. It would take a healthy dose of magical thinking to believe that the future and health of democracy depends on your voting.

Second, the civic duty of democratic citizens simply states that one must vote in an election. It does not say whether you have to vote Democratic or Republican. So you will fulfill your civic duty as a democratic citizen simply by turning up at the polling station and casting your ballot. It does not matter who you vote for. So if the reason for voting is fulfilling a civic duty and it’s not about affecting the electoral outcome, then, once inside the voting booth, people should vote randomly. They have already fulfilled their civic duty by turning out to vote, and it doesn’t matter who they vote for. Yet virtually every single person who turns out to vote votes for their favorite candidate, never for the opponent, which means that it is about trying to affect the outcome.

So, once again, why do people vote? There is no definitive answer that everybody agrees on, but there are some ideas. I’ll talk about them in my next post.