Why Vote?

While 2005 is an off year for Presidential and Congressional elections, Tuesday is still Election Day, and in its honor, we got to wondering: why the heck do people bother to vote? That is the subject of our latest Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine. As always, we’ve posted a page elsewhere on this website with ancillary information. Happy Election Day, whether you vote or not. A few months ago, the question of voting arose in an online Q&A I did with the Washington Post. Here is the relevant excerpt. (I should add that I have since met a few economists who actually do vote.)

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

Stephen Dubner: 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.)

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  1. mtraven says:

    Voting is part of a social process and is not well understood in terms of individual transactions. Voting alone in a booth is only the last stage of an electoral process that takes place over a broad field of communities, party organizations, and social networks. So I’m not voting alone, I’m voting along with all those of my political sympathies and those that have influenced and been influenced by me.

    I suppose on election day I could make a narrow economic self-interest argument and talk myself out of voting, but then I’ve let down my friends and lost my right to take place in the larger conversation.

    See this paper by Valdis Krebs for more.

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  2. mtraven says:

    Voting is part of a social process and is not well understood in terms of individual transactions. Voting alone in a booth is only the last stage of an electoral process that takes place over a broad field of communities, party organizations, and social networks. So I’m not voting alone, I’m voting along with all those of my political sympathies and those that have influenced and been influenced by me.

    I suppose on election day I could make a narrow economic self-interest argument and talk myself out of voting, but then I’ve let down my friends and lost my right to take place in the larger conversation.

    See this paper by Valdis Krebs for more.

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  3. mjs says:

    I didn’t think voters were “supposed to” vote for the candidate who would advance their own economic interests; I thought they were supposed to vote for whomever they wanted to win. Of course, in most cases this would be the same person (candidate you want to win = candidate of the greatest economic benefit to you) but it’s not necessarily the same.

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  4. mjs says:

    I didn’t think voters were “supposed to” vote for the candidate who would advance their own economic interests; I thought they were supposed to vote for whomever they wanted to win. Of course, in most cases this would be the same person (candidate you want to win = candidate of the greatest economic benefit to you) but it’s not necessarily the same.

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  5. mhiggins826 says:

    The previous two comments by mtraven and mjs are exactly right. We vote because it is what “good” people do. If don’t vote it simply means you are antisocial and a bad person. This is not like the free market where selfishness leads to a good outcome. Here selfishness leads to a bad outcome so good people take the two hours our of their day to vote.

    Also, it makes absolutely no sense to vote your own self interest because the value of your vote is negligible. You should vote for the best candidate. Vote for honest and good people everytime. Simple.

    I wrote a essay about this subject here. I think your vote does count for a lot if you care about how the outcome of the election will impact other people. Most people rarely have the opportunity to engage in a activity that has tremendous value to many others and cost very little of themselves. Voting is one such activity.

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  6. mhiggins826 says:

    The previous two comments by mtraven and mjs are exactly right. We vote because it is what “good” people do. If don’t vote it simply means you are antisocial and a bad person. This is not like the free market where selfishness leads to a good outcome. Here selfishness leads to a bad outcome so good people take the two hours our of their day to vote.

    Also, it makes absolutely no sense to vote your own self interest because the value of your vote is negligible. You should vote for the best candidate. Vote for honest and good people everytime. Simple.

    I wrote a essay about this subject here. I think your vote does count for a lot if you care about how the outcome of the election will impact other people. Most people rarely have the opportunity to engage in a activity that has tremendous value to many others and cost very little of themselves. Voting is one such activity.

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  7. semivoid says:

    I live in a smallish city where the relative worth of a vote is greater for municipal elections due to extremely low voter turnout.

    Consider this: The city’s mayor lives in my neighborhood. We have wonderful roads, extremely fast utility repairs (a transformer blew and we had a new one in 2 hours), we’re the first for road repairs, road de-icing etc. I believe the turnout in the last election was somewhere on the order of 10k.

    Of course nationally your vote is worth essentially nothing.

    Your vote can also be worth more if, as an interested party, you convince other like minded people to vote. Were you inclined not to vote and, perhaps, told others that their vote was essentially worthless you would be essentially destroying more than the ‘worth’ of your own vote.

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  8. semivoid says:

    I live in a smallish city where the relative worth of a vote is greater for municipal elections due to extremely low voter turnout.

    Consider this: The city’s mayor lives in my neighborhood. We have wonderful roads, extremely fast utility repairs (a transformer blew and we had a new one in 2 hours), we’re the first for road repairs, road de-icing etc. I believe the turnout in the last election was somewhere on the order of 10k.

    Of course nationally your vote is worth essentially nothing.

    Your vote can also be worth more if, as an interested party, you convince other like minded people to vote. Were you inclined not to vote and, perhaps, told others that their vote was essentially worthless you would be essentially destroying more than the ‘worth’ of your own vote.

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