Why Don’t Economists Vote?

A few days ago, in an online Q&A with the Washington Post, someone asked this question:

Annapolis, Md.: Have you explored why some people vote against their own economic interest?

And I gave the following answer: No. But it’s not that surprising, since one vote is really worth very very little. It probably comes down to the fact that most people consider a single vote to be worth far less in electoral oomph than in the value it gives them in terms of their conscience, or belief, or style, or whatever you want to call it. In “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, Thomas Frank makes much of the fact that blue-collar Republicans are voting against their economic self-interest, which is true. But again, I don’t find it so surprising. Steven Spielberg is voting against his economic self-interest by voting Democratic, no? I think the voting paradigm we all cling to — that economic self-interest rules all — is pretty weak. (I should also note that I don’t know a single economist who bothers to vote, so worthless do they consider the act.)

Since then, I’ve heard from quite a few people, including at least one economist who says she always votes. Today, we heard from one Anna V., who had this to say:

I saw part of the recent Freakonomics Q&A on Washingtonpost.com and was surprised by the assertion that most economists don’t bother to vote because it’s just not worth it. After the extremely close results in the 2000 Gore vs. Bush race (not to mention the extremely close results in a lot of local government races), how can you justify this position? (And give me a break, with all the absentee and other voting options available nowadays, it’s not a big expenditure of time or effort to cast a ballot.)

Anna V. has plainly turned the issue from a “what is” to a “what ought to be,” which I think is perfectly fine. I’d love to hear what others have to say — economists and non-economists — about the utility of voting. (It should also be said that there’s a huge difference in a national election and a local election, which I probably would have noted had the Q&A not been a live one.) Comments welcome.


Voting is part of the social contract, part of living in community.

To not vote is to be used by those who do get elected towards ends I haven't chosen. To not vote is socially irresponsible.



It simply doesn't make sense to argue that one vote doesn't count. It's the *only* thing that counts. It's not as if there are people who get 500 or 1000 votes, while you only get one.


I fear to read the thread here because I'm sure it's already turned into a Left vs. Right debate, which I think is beyond the point.

The fact is, there are many people (blue collar republicans) voting against their own economi self-interest. I'm a lower-middle class white collar who's a staunch Dem. My economic self-interest is pretty much split. I don't make so little as to benefit from traditional Democratic economic policies, but I certainly don't make enough to benefit from GOP trickle-down policies.

To me, it goes far beyond economics and as you said beyond voting for one's own self-interest. To many people (the Speilberg's of the country in your example), when they vote they vote considering the economic interests of OTHERS, not just themselves. What pushes me to the democratic side with my seemingly middle-of-the-road self-interests is that I view the economic interests of others to be just as important as my own, so I vote for the policies that will help the most people. Not the policies designed to help those who vote only on their own self-interest.

I hope that made some sort of sense. Summary: I think the difference is between those who vote in their own economic self-interest (or what the perceive to be their own interests, someday,when they are the ones in the big house) and those who vote while considering the economic self-interest of the community.


H Jasen

One vote does count, if it's part of a larger group. elections are better described as self organizing systems.
One vote doesn't matter to a voter who sees herself as a lone wolf, but it maters a whole lot to those who see themselves as a pack of wolves. It is by banding together that voters get social support and sustenance.


from my blog (http://www.livejournal.com/users/undersupervised/10370.html):

in many cases it is true that voting in a presidential election has no expected value. however, if you are in a swing state, particularly one with a lot of undecided or unpredictable voters, there is a non-trivial chance that your vote will matter. as a completely contrived example, suppose you are in a state where the two candidates are in a dead heat with committed voters. in addition to the committed voters, there are 1 million voters each of whom will vote for K with a probability of 0.5 (and staying home otherwise), and 1 million voters each of whom will vote for B with a probability of 0.5 (and staying home otherwise). then there is (if i've calculated correctly) a 1 in 886 chance that your vote will cause or break a tie. not too long odds considering the payoff, especially when so much is at stake.

when you consider that there are more items on the ballot than the prez race, some of which may affect you more locally/directly than the choice of president, all of which are subject to the same probabilistic logic outlined above, and all of which have fewer potential voters (thus increasing the probability of a tie), voting could have a fair amount of expectation. your utility may vary.



If freedom of speech is so important to Hollywood, why are they voting democrat? The best judges on first amendment issues are the hard conservatives - Scalia and Thomas. Look at any free speech cases in the last few years. Unless it is about porn, you can't count on the liberals.

Moreover, the presumption that a blue collar person voting for a less regulation, smaller government candidate is voting against his own economic self-interst is absurd. The only blue collar people who benefit from Democratic politics are the unskilled mob-unions members. [Note: career welfare people are NOT 'blue collar.' Blue collar implies a job.]


So, aside from influencing the present election, isn't each voter also shifting the median voter (admittedly by a small amount)? Couldn't this be a reason to vote, even if you don't expect it to make any difference in this particular election? Future politicians will cater to the median voter, in theory, so changing who the expected median voter is might be a worthwhile activity.


The primary reason I vote is for the "warm glow" emotional effect, and the impact on my self-concept (internalized social norm?). It is the same reason I served four years as an enlisted infantryman in the Marines and had no interest at the time in serving in a less dangerous capacity despite the options to do so (I will applying for JAG positions now that I am in my last year of law school, BA Economics).
I believe statistics will show that veterans are much more likely to vote than non-veterans, and are much less likely to vote Democrat. Maybe you can explore the correlation between military service and probability of voting to see if there is an underlying incentive.

D. McFarland

I vote. But I have no idea why. In nearly every situation we know the outcome of the election. Could anyone in Massachusetts possibly believe their state would elect Bush or anyone in Utah elect Kerry. What was the point of voting in the the 38 states where we knew the outcome long before election day? If you live in a voting district with a large percentage of one party or the other chances are you know who will be elected in the next election. The chances are also high that you live in a voting district with a high percentage of one party or the other. If you don't it will probably soon be gerrymandered that way. I guess the consensus is that voting is a civic duty... but I fail to understand why something so pointless is so valued. I feel stupid after voting because I knew who would win before I went. I have never lived in a competetive district though. If I did then voting might be fun and seem worthwhile.



It's true that one vote really doesn't have the "electoral oomph" you referred to in your answer to the Washington Post Q&A, but don't be so quick to jump down Anna V.'s throat just yet.

I think that a vote in a national election is just as important as it is in a local election, and the reason is that, although it doesn't necessary carry with it the "oomph" or even any sliver of a chance of affecting the outcome of the election by itself, it does carry with it the example of participating in a system that is somewhat flawed and certainly ignored by many.

My vote in Mississippi (which is where I live, before anyone hassles me for bashing the South) really didn't matter in November's Presidential Election. Mississippi was, and is, and will be for quite some time, a red state, regardless of how I vote, or how those in my immediate circle of peers vote. However, by voting, and by talking about voting and encouraging others to vote, even though you don't necessarily do much for any candidate in particular, you really go a long way toward strengthening the integrity of the system. In a situation such as this, where many are so vocal about not voting and complaining that their vote doesn't even count anyway, merely being part of the example is effectively leading by example.



Voting is an act of faith.

That's it, really. That's what I come down to if I think about it long enough. Yes, my individual vote is meaningless. Same goes for my individual choice to recycle, to not cheat on my taxes, and on and on. I do these things anyway, in the hope and the faith that enough other people will do their part too to make it all work.

I'm frequently disappointed, but that's why faith is necessary. The alternative is despair.


I took Ed Glaeser's Microeconomic Theory class at Harvard last fall (Economics 1011a). On election day, he spent the whole 90 minutes working a model of voting. As you might immagine, it was extremely interesting. I don't have my notes with me, but I'll try to explain what he did.

He started by having everyone vote for their own economic self interest (two candidates, two policies, bell curve of income, each one will help/hurt a certain section of the curve...). Then looking at the probability that your vote would matter and utility maximizing with some small cost to going to the ballot box, we found that the likihood you would vote was virtually nothing- even a tiny smallest cost to voting would trump a huge benefit for a certain candidate winning. Also, adding other non-economic costs and benefits to you from one candidate winning there was no difference in the unitility maximization problem's first order conditions (which means no change in the optimization and thus behavior).

The only way to adjust the model so that people would actually vote was by adding some external benefit to voting independent of outcome (like a psychic benefit to voting - you fell good, feel like you did your civic duty, feel morally better because you voted for or against what you did). The decision to vote then depends crucially on the size of the costs to voting versus the benefits of voting. By creating some distribution of costs and benefits, you could get an equilibrium level of voter turnout and model the 50% turnout we get in the US.

Again, I don't remember everything, but thats the rough sketch of it. I'm not claiming that this model is the definitive model, but starting with a few behavioral assumptions and keeping the model fairly simple this is what we came up with in class.

Professor Glaeser frequently worked through these types of "verbal" problems (which were also on our problem sets and exams) about a variety of interesting topics (including the fertlility decision, descrimination in the job market, the effect of barbed wire on the development of the west, if a city should build a subway, etc). He really taught us how to think like an economist. Although the class is very math heavy, anyone reading this who has the chance to take it should take it in a heartbeat.



I remember my post some while ago:



Does Anna Live in Florida? If not, then her vote really didn't matter all that much.


Here is a very important point about close elections at a large level (ie. Florida, Ohio, or better yet Washington (governor race 2004)):

Those elections, far from demonstrating the value of one vote, show the exact opposite. After Florida 2000 can you even imagine a campaign being decided by one vote? (aside from the supreme court getting involved) It isn't even a remote possibility! One dimpled chad, one late absentee ballot, two armies of lawyers.

Think about it.

I vote "3rd party" so I know we won't win, I vote because our side cherishes every ballot cast. The big 2 parties obviously just care about the result, which makes sense for what they are trying to accomplish.



Strictly on an election influencing utility basis, voting doesn't make sense. Personally, the utility that is received from my voting sticker is enough to force me to drive a block. Yes, drive. Because frankly, walking would again diminish the utility to a negative quadrant.

my pair of pennies.


I think a breakdown occurs in how economic self interest is defined. From a purely monetary standpoint, Speilberg would be better off voting republican. However, using a more holistic definition, which includes intangible factors such as the benefit of perceiving one's self as altruistic, he might derive greater marginal benefit from voting democratic and providing financial benefits those that have very little money than from voting republican and providing himself additional financial benefits. In essence, the marginal benefit Speilberg derives from voting in a manner that may help the working poor obtain the financial means to make a down payment on a three bedroom home (the expected result of a Kerry vote) exceeds the marginal benefit he will derive from increasing his net worth from $2.6B to $2.7B (the expected result of a Bush vote) are likely to provide.


Dan hit the nail on the head, in that voting is a prisoners dilemma.

One vote does not count. Based on the zero-value of one vote and the cost of voting, no one would vote. But when no one votes, then one vote does count.

So the voting public reaches equilibrium, which for different localities results in different levels of turnout. In the US as a whole, we happen to be around 50%. Other countries have different costs (and different benefits) to voting and arrive at a different equillibrium.

Uncle Jeffy

"Red state" voters in the 2004 Presidential election DID NOT vote contrary to their economic self-interest. Take a look at the incidence of agcricultural subsidies, import quotas on ag products, etc., and the "economic self-interest" part gets turned on its head. They knew exactly for whom they were voting...

Robert Schwartz

"In "What's the Matter With Kansas?", Thomas Frank makes much of the fact that blue-collar Republicans are voting against their economic self-interest, which is true."

First how did that get to be a fact? Outside of the arrogance of the chattering classes, how do you determine what is in somebody elses interest?

I think that any economic or other social science research must begin with the assumption that men are rational beings who know what their interests are and act to maimize their intrests and minimize their problems, as its null hypothesis.

Political calculations are notoriously difficult and many is the policy that had consequences other than the ones that were used to sell it. But the idea that policy set a should be judged as having been implemented without friction and that ony a fool could oppose it, is mere partisan hackery and not science.