Yesterday my girlfriend and I got into a fight about voting.
She was just getting started filling out her ballot. I made a simple statement that I thought was as mathematically certain as it was depressing: “Your vote doesn’t matter”. I said it off-handedly (as I’ve done quite a few times in recent days) and more as an expression of exasperation than to discourage her from her civic duties. But, after all, we live in California and everybody knows what color our state will be on election night. CNN will call the state as soon as it starts reporting results.
In fact, for a majority of the states (and persons) in the Union it’s a near certainty where those electoral college votes will go.
So, “your vote doesn’t matter”. Right?
While the friends or workmates I’ve made this statement to seemed to accept it as a given—of course it doesn’t matter—my girlfriend was far less amused at my casual dismissal of a Democratic citizen’s most cherished value; she was pissed.
Her: “What do you mean? ‘It doesn’t matter’. So no one should vote?”
Me: “Errr, well not exactly. I mean people should vote. It’s the right thing to do and all… but their vote isn’t going to make a difference for themselves”.
Her: “How can you say that? What if each person thought the way you do? Then they wouldn’t vote and it *would* make a difference.”
Me: “Oh yes, good point. I guess I mean that people should, but a person doesn’t have any good reason to vote. It won’t effect their lives at all.”
In fact, the more I thought about it the more firmly I came to believe my statement. What had originally been a throwaway one-liner congealed into a thesis that I found terrifying: “Voting is inherently irrational.”
Shit. That nagging feeling that I’ve always had that voting is all a waste of time seemed to suddenly come into focus under the unflinching glare of the Economist’s microscopic: If the expected benefit to an individual for an act is vanishingly small then that act is irrational—plain and simple. With this in mind, even the few minutes it takes to fill out a ballot is a waste of time—to say nothing of the costs in time and brainpower of staying properly informed.
For all my life I believed the world would be a better place if only more people would just act rationally. But, horribly, it seems if people really acted rationally—if human beings really were the rational creatures I believed they should all aspire to be—then the very fabric of Democracy unravels.
Does that mean that the foundation of what I believe to be the highest ideal of humanity, universal self governance, is presupposed on wishful thinking and poor stats?
Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to notice this. It even has a fitting name: The Paradox of Voting.
The paradox of voting […] is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e., in an otherwise tied election) is minuscule compared to any realistic estimate of the private individual benefits of the different possible outcomes, the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs.
Thanks for killing my sense of civic pride Wikipedia!
So if the Economists are right then how come it feels so wrong?
The answer is so obvious it’s almost impossible to see. Like all the most confusing problems, it’s missing a variable.
When was the last time you felt strongly about a bill? Was it because it raised your marginal tax rate 3%? Was it because your health insurance would be more expensive? Did those get your blood boiling?
I bet the last time you felt moved to act was because it would affect you, your friends, your family and untold other human beings. I bet the last time you felt strongly about Government was when you thought it unconsionable that thousands of other persons would suffer when there was no need. I bet it was when you thought millions of people whom you’d never met would be worse off. I bet you barely even thought about yourself.
The missing variable that obviates the Paradox of Voting is that we don’t vote for ourselves. We vote for all of us.
Even if there’s a vanishingly small chance that your vote will affect things for the better, the millions and millions of people who may benefit changes the math. It’s worth your time; it’s worth your effort. The rational actor who cares about his fellow citizens will vote every time.
Our collective humanity is why we vote.
Go out and vote today; it’s the rational thing to do.