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Your Vote Doesn't Count

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Three little words: I don't vote. Voting is widely thought to be one of the most important things a person can do. But the reasons people give for why they vote and why everyone else should too are flawed, unconvincing, and sometimes even dangerous. The case for voting relies on factual errors, misunderstandings about the duties of citizenship, and overinflated perceptions of self-worth. There are some good reasons for some people to vote some of the time. But there are a lot more bad reasons to vote, and the bad ones are more popular.

Let's start with the basics: Your vote will almost certainly not determine the outcome of any public election. I'm not talking about conspiracy theories regarding rigged elections or malfunctioning voting machines—although both of those things have happened and will happen again. I'm not talking about swing states or Supreme Court power grabs or the weirdness of the Electoral College.

I'm talking about pure, raw math. In all of American history, a single vote has never determined the outcome of a presidential election. And there are precious few examples of any other elections decided by a single vote. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56, contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to Of the 40, state legislative elections they examined, encompassing about 1 billion votes cast, only seven were decided by a single vote two were tied.

A Buffalo contest was the lone single-vote victory in a century's worth of congressional races. In four of the 10 ultra-close campaigns flagged in the paper, further research by the authors turned up evidence that subsequent recounts unearthed margins larger than the official record initially suggested. The numbers just get more ridiculous from there. In a Economic Inquiry article, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman, statistician Nate Silver, and University of California, Berkeley, economist Aaron Edlin use poll results from the election cycle to calculate that the chance of a randomly selected vote determining the outcome of a presidential election is about one in 60 million.

In a couple of key states, the chance that a random vote will be decisive creeps closer to one in 10 million, which drags voters into the dubious company of people gunning for the Mega-Lotto jackpot. The authors optimistically suggest that even with those terrible odds, you may still choose to vote because "the payoff is the chance to change national policy and improve one hopes the lives of hundreds of millions, compared to the alternative if the other candidate were to win.

If you ask a man on the street why rich people are more likely to vote for Republicans, he will probably tell you a story about how the GOP promotes policies that favor businesses and lower the tax burden of the wealthiest people in society. But your sidewalk interlocutor is wrong on two counts. First, rich people are not more likely to vote Republican.

It was a trick question. Second, study after study, poll after poll, finds that people do not typically vote in ways that align with their personal material interests. The old, for instance, don't support Social Security in higher numbers than the young. But first they offer a methodology for calculating the value of a vote. On their account, the expected utility of a vote is a function of the probability that the vote will be decisive, delivering gains to the individual or society as a whole if the preferred candidate wins.

The probability of casting the decisive vote decreases slowly as the size of the voting pool gets larger, but it drops dramatically when polls show that one candidate has even a slight lead. Which means that in a presidential election, where the number of voters is about million and one candidate is usually polling a point or two ahead on Election Day, you're screwed. Assuming a very close election where that candidate is leading in the polls only slightly and a random voter has a That's 2, orders of magnitude less than a penny.

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It's not hard to beat that offer. Say you plan to sleep for an extra hour instead of voting. Unless you are astonishingly well rested, an hour of sleep is almost certainly worth more to you than an infinitesimal fragment of a penny. Or say you plan to use that time to write an election-related blog post. The expected social payoff of even the lowest-traffic blog post is higher than the payoff from voting.

In fact, an alternative activity plan isn't even necessary: Simply not driving to the polls slightly reduces the chance that you or someone else will die in a car accident on Election Day, which is worth more than your vote can ever hope to be. Those figures reflect GDP figures and voting totals, but it almost doesn't matter what batch of reasonable numbers you plug into the equation.

Say the polls show a gap of two percentage points between the candidates. In any plausible scenario, the expected utility of your vote still amounts to approximately bupkes. A vote for a third-party candidate pushes the figure into even more infinitesimal territory. Voters know this on some level. If they truly believed that each person's vote could be the vote, imagine how they would treat people who disagree with them in early November.

Voter suppression happens occasionally, of course.

Unscrupulous actors send out flyers that give the wrong date for Election Day or mislead voters about the correct polling place. But if people were operating on the theory that your vote actually counts, far dirtier tricks would be happening everywhere, every day. No individual vote is likely to determine the outcome of an election; nor is it likely to result in a material gain for the voter. Does that mean people who vote are irrational, evil, or stupid?

Not necessarily. Or at least not all of them. The column, which he published on his personal blog years later, suggests that "the next time a friend of yours tells you he's not voting, don't try to change his mind. Mankiw's argument draws on a article by economists Timothy Feddersen of Northwestern University and Wolfgang Pesendorfer of Princeton University that cites the phenomenon of "roll off"—people who make it all the way inside the polyester curtains on Election Day and then leave some blanks on their ballots—to illustrate the point that people who believe themselves ill-informed routinely choose not to vote, thereby increasing the quality of voters who actually pull the lever for one side or the other.

There is some additional evidence for this claim: Education is one of the two best predictors of voter turnout the other is age. Better-educated people are much more likely to vote, which suggests that the pool of voters is better informed and more qualified to make election-related judgments than the pool of nonvoters.

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They are rationally delegating the decision to their better educated neighbors. What Mankiw doesn't go on to say, perhaps because he fears insulting his readers, is that people aren't particularly good at knowing whether or not they are well-informed. Many people who follow politics closely hold views that are dangerous and wrong see George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan's October reason cover story "The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters".

Even if everyone who had the slightest suspicion that he was not knowledgeable enough to vote stayed home on Election Day, millions of people would still be casting ill-informed votes. Demographically speaking, if you're reading this, you're probably closer to the top than the bottom of the distribution. But you still have very little knowledge of what a politician will do once you send him to Washington. The gap between the promised and real consequences of electing one guy over the other is very difficult to anticipate.

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Even jaded libertarian types, for instance, were hopeful that President Barack Obama would be better than his predecessor on issues such as civil liberties and the war on drugs. Look how that turned out.

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You don't know as much as you think. Encouraging more ignorant people to vote is not just pointless, argues Jason Brennan; it's morally wrong.

Your Vote Doesn’t Count –

There is no duty to vote, but many people may have a duty not to vote. Boosting turnout among citizens who are young, uneducated, or otherwise less likely to be engaged—the primary targets of get-out-the-vote campaigns—is likely to have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to fail in that duty. To explain why we might worry about casting an uninformed vote even when no particular vote is likely to be decisive, Brennan conjures this terrifying thought experiment: Imagine you come across a firing squad about to kill an innocent child. Assume all the bullets will strike at the same time and that there's nothing you can do to stop them.

You are invited to be the st member of the squad. What do you say? Brennan posits a framework to deal with this kind of hypothetical, the "clean hands principle," which states that "one should not participate in collectively harmful activities when the cost of refraining from such activities is low. None of this is to suggest that the government should test voters or use some other legal means to limit voting.