Campaigns and elections

Yes, it can be rational to vote. Yes, your vote could determine the outcome of the election. Maybe if 90% of well-educated, older white people do something, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as “irrational.” Etc.

Jan 20 '11

Seeing as the Freakonomics people were kind enough to link to my list of five recommended books, I’ll return the favor and comment on a remark from Levitt, who said:

Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. And in the modern era, elections that are close are always decided by the courts. There’s always litigation — look at what happened with Bush against Gore. So in no meaningful way can you say that your vote will ever decide an election. The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American — but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. … Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive [than voting].

I’ve discussed this before (see also the string of entries here), so this time I’ll keep it brief. Levitt is making a couple of mistakes:

1. At a purely technical level, it’s not true that litigation of elections means that a single vote can’t matter. Most elections are not litigated, and your vote can be the one that makes the election close enough to send it to the courts. Under any reasonable model, the probability that your vote determines the election is the same whether or not the courts are involved, and you can show this by adding up the probability of any vote margin being decisive. For a mathematical derivation, see page 674 of our article in the British Journal of Political Science.

2. We estimate the probability of your vote being decisive in the presidential election as about 1 in a million, at best. (See, for example, our paper in Economic Inquiry.) But–and this is a big “but”–if your vote does swing the election, this could be a big deal. From the voter’s standpoint, a national election is like a lottery: there is a very very small chance that your vote can matter, but if it does, you can get a big payoff. In this case, it’s not a personal payoff; rather, it’s the social payoff of making the world a better place (as you see it). We discuss this in our article, “Voting as a rational choice: why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others,” in Rationality and Society (see also this shorter version published in the Economist’s Voice).

If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 300 million people. If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $50 improvement in the quality of life to the average American–not an implausible hope, given the size of the Federal budget and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the courts, and other areas–you’re now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds.

And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for the country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish, but if you care how others are affected, it’s a smart calculation to cast your ballot, because the returns to voting are so high for everyone if you are decisive. Voting and vote choice (including related actions such as the decision to gather information in order to make an informed vote) are rational in large elections only to the extent that voters are not selfish.

3. Levitt says: “Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive [than voting]”: Define “productive.” Is playing chess productive? Going to the movies? Sledding? Etc.

That said, I agree with Levitt’s point that there are a lot of other reasons for voting besides affecting the election. Levitt, Dubner, and I live in New York and Illinois, where any vote has an extremely low probability of determining the presidential election. (First off, it’s highly unlikely that New York or Illinois will be so close that one vote can make a difference; second, if either of those states is tied, we’re probably in an electoral landslide, in which case swinging either of these states’ vote won’t change the Electoral College winner.) I vote anyway. So I’m certainly not claiming that rational decision making is the only reason or even the most important reason to vote. What I’m saying is that it can be rational to vote. “Rationality” does not have to equal “selfishness.”

I’d like to add one more thing. You’ve all heard about low voter turnout in America, but, among well-educated, older white people, turnout is around 90% in presidential elections. Some economists treat this as a source of amusement–and, sure, I’d be the first to admit that well-educated, older white people have done a lot of damage to this country–but it’s a funny thing . . . Usually economists tend not to question the actions of this particular demographic. I’m not saying that the high turnout of these people (e.g., me) is evidence that voting is rational. But I would hope that it would cause some economists to think twice before characterizing voting as irrational or laughable.

P.S. I don’t mind that Levitt doesn’t want to vote, and I’m not saying that it’s rational for everyone or even most people to vote, and it’s fine for Levitt to present arguments against voting, but I don’t think it’s so great for them to him to use his wide influence to spread the notion that “voting doesn’t make good economic sense” as if this is some sort of absolute truth. I think it is far more consistent with the best principles of Freakonomics to try to understand people’s behavior, not to snarkily dismiss it as not making sense.

P.S. Joe Bafumi, Aaron Edlin, Gary King, Noah Kaplan, Jonathan Katz, and Nate Silver participated in various parts of the research discussed above.