Thursday, October 25, 2012

Voting Might Just Be Important After All

In a recent New York Times article, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt expose how awfully stupid it is to vote. After all, the chance that you will cast the deciding ballot is so slim as to be almost nonexistent. And voting has a cost: your time and effort. As proof of their thesis, the authors relate a charming anecdote about two economists who run into each other at the polls. They're both embarrassed to be seen there, because economists know--even if you and I aren't smart enough to--that voting isn't worth it. Each was quick to point out his excuse: his wife made him come. They make a mutual agreement to keep each others' trip to the booth a secret, and part ways.

I found the article through friend's link on my Facebook feed. Accompanying the link was his provocative post: "Irony: although I get involved in political discussions online, there's a fairly high probability that I will not end up voting. We shall see." My friend is smart, he understands economics, and he had put that post together with that link. The implication was obvious--"if you were smart enough to understand economics the way I understand economics, you wouldn't vote either."

It might help a bit at this point to understand the basics of game theory: an "agent" (someone who "acts," i.e. a person) is said to be rational if, after a decision, his "utility" (the sum of "good" indicators in his state of being) is maximized. According to this point of view, voting isn't right or wrong, it's only rational or irrational. (Hint: it's irrational.)

There were several replies to my friend's post trying to get him to change his mind, but he held firm. Few of those replying probably read the article, and no one was taking into account the train of logic that led him to his decision, and they were therefore unable to refute it. His friends were all using the argument that voting is just the right thing to do, but to him, that was not only debatable, it was beside the point. He didn't want to vote, not because he opposed the practice, but because it just isn't worth it to spend so much effort to cast a single ballot. Now, this friend is an Obama supporter, and I didn't necessarily want Obama to have his vote, but on principle I wanted to defend at least the institution of voting. I mean, if he's right, no rational person would vote ever again. Then only irrational people would vote, and we'd either be taken over by idiots or elections would stop altogether. Either way, we'd want to pull the plug on the grand experiment of America as soon as possible to make way for the √úbermensch.

Mustering my idealism, I came up with my own reply, which I hoped would make better headway against my smart friend's resistance: (emphasis added)
There are at least three good reasons for you* to vote in the upcoming election for President, even if the electoral votes of your state are not in question.
First: the popular vote, while not deciding the winner, can still decide the winner's mandate. A President who wins while losing the popular vote will have trouble accomplishing anything controversial, but a President who had a solid majority of both electoral and popular votes has earned tacit approval for his agenda.
Second: If you go to the polls in support of a Presidential candidate, you are more likely to vote for other members of his party for Congress and in local elections. This will make it more likely that your candidate can accomplish what you want him to.
Third: It is conceivable, though unlikely, that Obama could win the popular vote by a wide margin (in one scenario, as much as seven percent) while still losing the election. If this happens, he might call on the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact** to cast their votes for him as winner of the popular vote rather than for Romney as winner of their states. Thus, your vote in Utah might end up affecting the electoral votes of states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, or even Maine. This would obviously raise a host of Constitutional issues, but if history is any indication, Obama won't lose a moment of sleep over them. As disgusting as this prospect is to me, I thought it might interest you to be aware of it.
After writing this as a reply to my friend's post, I hesitated. I had at least made an attempt at giving him a reason why his vote would matter, but it seemed doubtful I would change his mind. His real problem was not that his vote wasn't counted, it was that his vote wasn't important. It wouldn't be him that got to choose the President. If he couldn't be like Kevin Costner in Swing Voter***, he wasn't playing. So I deleted what I had written. I felt a little guilty as I did; I mean, I think it would be a good thing if everyone voted. However, it's Obama's job to motivate his supporters to go to the polls. If he can't do it, I've certainly got other demographics I'll choose to mobilize first.

It was only after I had had several hours to think about this exchange that the real importance of what I had read dawned on me. In my reply, I hadn't included the most important refutation of the NYT article's point, because it's so much a part of my philosophy that I just figured it didn't need to be said. But, sadly, I guess it does. For any who are wondering, here it is:

When you are called upon to participate in your Democracy, it's not about you.

My friend saw only his immediate benefit in voting, weighed against the costs in time and effort, fortified by his opportunity to look smart and superior on Facebook. He didn't stop to consider that being a small cog in a huge machine is the very essence of government by the people. Throughout the days, weeks, months, and years between elections, we citizens store up experiences of coming into contact with our government, and our votes, informed by those experiences, are the biggest push for our government to evolve. Fewer informed citizens voting gives disproportionate influence to the very things most people decry about the electoral process: money in politics, eternal incumbency, voter fraud, ignorance, lawsuits, and corruption.

Once people start making calculations around the utility of voting, they've already missed the most important factor in the equation. Voting is about making our world better--slowly and imperfectly to be sure--but inexorably. It's not about you getting what you want right away, or being the deciding voter, or even getting a quantifiable reward of any kind.

It's not about you at all.

Thankfully, I see this viewpoint far more often in those on the Left. It seems people who think government should do more for us also have a greater tendency to think we should do less for it. Apparently, they eventually reach the point where they can hardly be troubled to vote at all. Rather than being discouraged, I find optimism in that prospect, both for this election, and for the future beyond it.

*Incidentally, it doesn't take a whole lot of thought to see how each of the reasons I gave him to vote for Obama can be just as easily applied to someone desiring to vote for Romney. There is an added bonus as well--he's a better candidate!

**A few words about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: It is a leftist consortium of states determined to end the electoral college through the back door. They have pledged to cast their electoral votes for the winner of the Popular Vote, once the number of electoral votes of states in the Compact reaches a majority (right now, there are only about eight or nine states in it). Obviously, it's doubtful if they will activate the Compact in the case of a Conservative winning the popular vote, so critics (including me) see it as a way to award the office of President to the Democrat no matter who wins the election. It's a deeply dishonest and cowardly way to subvert the electoral college rather than abolishing it outright, but if you watched how Obama, Reid, and Pelosi managed to push Obamacare through Congress, nothing could surprise you.

***It's not a bad movie; go see it.


  1. The only element that really matters in life is to pass the test of mortality.
    So when we eventually stand before the Almighty to be judged he doesn't have to say, "WHAT were you thinking?!"

  2. I think one of the biggest problems with our system is that too much emphasis is placed on the simple act of casting a ballot, and too little is placed on actually getting oneself informed via objective sources. If someone did their "civic duty" and informed themselves in the proper manner, actually casting a ballot would naturally follow and the push to get people to the polls would be entirely unnecessary.

    It is because of this misplaced emphasis that something as ridiculous as a lawn sign with someone's name printed in huge letters is effective. Or why incumbents tend to remain in office. Uninformed people are more likely to simply choose a name they recognize vs. a "stranger". In our current system, becoming a leader has little to do with being a good leader, and a lot to do with being good at winning elections.

    A rational person, then, upon recognizing the popularity contest nature of the current system becomes disillusioned to the point that any otherwise noble sense of "participation in his decomcracy", or it not being only about him, is totally lost, and the economic factors, per the NY Times article, kick in. Spend the morning to go cast a genuinely meaningless ballot, or mow the lawn?

    They should give out buttons that read "I did my research." rather than "I voted." :)

  3. Lane, I stumbled upon this site via FB, via Bry Cox (as a photographer). You stated the basic problem so succinctly. I just had to re-post it on FB. I hope you don't mind. If so, let me know and I will delete it.

    Paula Malone

  4. thoughtful article, Mark, and I couldn't agree more with your bottom line.