Does voting make sense?

Rational choice theory says no.

PC: Theresa Thompson

The 2016 election, needless to say, has been revolutionary in more ways than one. But it has also raised a deeper, more philosophical question which feel has been mostly overlooked: what is, or ought to be, the purpose of voting?

Of course, this is a very broad inquiry and one that doesn’t have a single, straightforward answer. However, taking this conundrum into more conscious consideration can serve to spark discussion surrounding the role of politics in our society, especially in regard to the current two-party system.

I’d like to present an equation known as the paradox of voting that is used as part of rational choice theory as it applies to voter behavior. It sounds technical, but it’s not as complicated as one may think. Let’s break this down:

Utility = P*B — C

Basic economics states that utility is a measure of consumer satisfaction. The higher this is, the more likely the consumer (or, in this case, the voter) will make a decision. Therefore, if utility is zero or negative, the voter, assuming she is rational, should not vote.

P is the probability that your vote will determine the election outcome. B represents the benefits you’ll receive should your preferred candidate win office.

C represents the costs of voting. These can include the effort it takes to physically get to the polls, the hassle of taking time off work, taking the time to do research on the candidates, et cetera.

Now, let’s substitute in for these factors. P will basically be zero because there is almost no chance that an election could hinge on one single vote. Elections are won by margins of several million votes; in 2012, Barack Obama won by a margin of 4 million. This takes the P*B term — the term in the equation representing the benefit of voting to the voter — to zero, leaving us with negative utility, as costs of voting will always exist. So, in the end, one single vote will make little to no impact on the outcome, leaving the voter with all the disadvantages of having voted with nothing to show for the hassle.

As mentioned before, if utility is negative, we shouldn’t be voting. But obviously, we still are. Why?

To account for this, some economists and political scientists have come up with the D term, which they have dubbed the duty to vote. In other words, there must exist some psychological motivation that is compensating for this negative utility and compelling people to get out and vote. (As people as early as Alex de Tocqueville claimed in Democracy in America, this civic duty has been the backbone of American governmental structure for years.) This could be a sense of obligation as a citizen or even a form of peer pressure.

So, our new equation would look like this:

Utility = P*B — C + D

My original question concerns this D factor. What exactly does that duty entail?

Some vote out of a sense of patriotism and citizenship. Many fought hard for the right to participate in the selection of government. Countless hours of protest, lobbying, and debate went into the expansion of suffrage for women and minorities. What’s the point of a such a hard-won right if it is never exercised?

Others are so driven by their belief in a certain candidate that they are willing to vote for the candidate that aligns best with their personal moral convictions and values despite the drawbacks. Voters who feel this way claim that citizens have a duty to vote for the candidate who they believe will be the best for the country and for the people as a whole. This argument is illustrated by those who are voting for third party candidates. When reminded that people like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have little to no chance of winning, these voters retort with remarks such as, “At least I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing I voted for a candidate I actually believe in.” Despite little chance of eventual reward for their efforts, third party-voters overcome all the downsides of voting with enthusiasm for their chosen candidate.

The implication of the voting equation (Utility = P*B — C+D) is that it is in nobody’s best interest to vote, and yet it is in our collective best interest for others to vote. This is the classic free rider problem. If others are doing the research on candidates and going to the polls before work and your vote won’t make much of a difference — why vote at all? It takes passion or a sense of patriotism to overcome the temptation to be a free rider.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Victoria Jones’s story.