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.)


mtraven

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.

mjs

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.

mhiggins826

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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Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science

Why vote?

There's an article by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt in the New York Times today on why it's rational to vote. They correctly point out that the probability of casting a decisive vote is very small. Unfortunately they don't seem...

semivoid

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.

gOdzi11a

Following Kant, I would ask: "What would happen if everyone decided not to vote?" Would it lead to dictatorship? Anarchy? I have no idea, but I have a hunch it would not be good.

Avoiding things that are not good is a form of self-interested behavior, but it seems true that voting is not easily explainable by standard economic theory.

Kant's Categorical Imperative says that one should act according to a maxim that you would want to be a universal law: eg: "If everyone did this, would things be better or worse?" Kant said that all rational creatures could formulate these maxims independently of other authorities, making a solid case justifying individual liberties, including the universal right to vote.

Similarly, evolutionary psychologists have suggested that humans possess some faculty that sometimes urges us to sacrifice our own self-interest for the sake of the group; and that oddly enough, this has allowed humanity to survive and prosper even more than if we were all guided by pure self-interest. This seems to be true even in the absence of immediate punishments, a fact that game theorists do not find easy to explain.

In other words, human beings sometimes can think as a group, even while acting as an individual. Voting would seem to be one of those activites. If Spielberg votes against his economic self-interest, it may be because he is thinking about what is best for society as a whole.

Environmentalism is another example. The basic idea is that we owe it to future generations to leave this planet in the same shape we found it or better. Some people even describe this as a debt we owe to our ancestors, who freely gave us the Earth on which we live.

This way of thinking must seem bizarre to an economist: How can we owe a debt to people who died before we were born, or to people who will be born after we are dead?

All I can say is, it is lucky that people really do behave this way, or else much of the prosperity we enjoy now might not exist.

So stop bad-mouthing voting, will ya?

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gOdzi11a

The thought of dictatorships makes me think of those societies where an individual vote really, and I mean really, doesn't confer any power.

It is estimated that around 100 million people died as a result of the policies of just two men: Stalin and Mao. The ability to murder 100 million people would seem to constitute a great deal of power.

If this type of power were to be divided among say, 300 million Americans, that would still mean that an individual vote conferred the power to murder one-sixth of a person!

That individual vote is starting to look a bit more significant, eh?

gOdzi11a

In case you don't like my math in the post above, I was dividing the individual power of either dictator, which I figured to be about 50 million murders each.

That assumes, of course, that Stalin ran a country that was as powerful as the current U.S.A. One might argue that a country with as many nukes as the U.S. has the power to murder many more people than a mere 50M. So feel free to adjust figures accordingly.

kate q

I'm not sure people do (intentionally, anyway) vote against their economic self-interest. What does that even mean? I can't think of any explanation other than condescending Blue-Stater opinions of the Great Red-State Unwashed (which does seem to be Thomas Frank's thesis), and that seems out of character for you guys.

I'd guess, without doing any kind of research, that people vote for the candidate they see as being the best one, economically and otherwise.

david_ard

Q: If few elections are won by a one-vote margin, why vote?

A: By concluding that I should vote, everyone else who thinks like me will too,
and that's a lot more than just one vote!

16words

Speilberg has what is known in the trade as 'F*** You' money. He is seriously rich and no foreseeable political circumstance will alter that fact. Therefore it follows that elections are of no economic interest to him, while at the same time being deeply interesting in other ways.

He can even take time off real work to get an economically irrelevant degree if he wants to.

However, if the Dems said they would abolish private property then you might see him change his vote because it's all a question of what's at stake. The Freak Brothers should have this cold!

Blar

But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race.

This is not true. The method by which close elections are settled has basically no impact on a voter's chances of being pivotal. One way to think of it is that, even in a close election, a swing of a few thousand votes will switch which candidate wins, so there must be one voter in there who switches the outcome, even if we don't know who.

Here's a more mathematical way of looking at it. For an election of Candidate A vs. Candidate B, we want to find the probability that a single voter will change the outcome of the election by voting for A instead of staying home. Let x be the number of votes for A minus the number of votes for B. Let f(x) be the prior probability that A will win if x is the vote differential. Let p(x) be the prior probability that the vote differential will be x if the voter does not vote. Then the voter's influence on the election is the infinite sum over all x of p(x)[f(x+1)-f(x)]. (We are assuming that the vote cast by this voter is counted.)

In an ideal election, f(x)=1 for all x>0 and f(x)=0 for all x

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Blar

[continued]

In an ideal election, f(x)=1 for all x>0 and f(x)=0 for all x

Blar

But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race.

This is not true. The method by which close elections are settled has basically no impact on a voter's chances of being pivotal. One way to think of it is that, even in a close election, a swing of a few thousand votes will switch which candidate wins, so there must be one voter in there who switches the outcome, even if we don't know who.

Here's a more mathematical way of looking at it. For an election of Candidate A vs. Candidate B, we want to find the probability that a single voter will change the outcome of the election by voting for A instead of staying home. Let x be the number of votes for A minus the number of votes for B. Let f(x) be the prior probability that A will win if x is the vote differential. Let p(x) be the prior probability that the vote differential will be x if the voter does not vote. Then the voter's influence on the election is the infinite sum over all x of p(x)[f(x+1)-f(x)]. (We are assuming that the vote cast by this voter is counted.)

In an ideal election, f(x)=1 for all x gt 0 and f(x)=0 for all x lt 0 (and I suppose f(0) would be .5) (due to html programming, gt = "greater than", lt = "less than"). If you assume that p(-1)=p(0), which is a very reasonable assumption if the number of voters is large, then you can verify that the infinite sum simplifies to p(0). In other words, the probability that a single voter influences the election equals the probability of a tie (assuming he does not vote). That sounds reasonable enough.

But what about a non-ideal election, where the action in f(x) is not all between x=-1 and x=1? I claim that the voter has just as large an impact as in the ideal election, as long as there exist integers c and d, with c lt 0 lt d, such that these 3 conditions hold:

1. f(c) is approximately 0
2. f(d) is approximately 1
3. p(x) is approximately constant for all x where c lte x lt d. Note: lte is "less than or equal to"

This means that the uncertainty created by intervening courts and so forth does not cover too wide a domain of values of x, so p(x) is relatively flat on this domain. This should be true, assuming that there are millions of voters and that a lead of a few thousand votes is enough to just about guarantee an election win. (In the ideal election, we would have c=-1 and d=1.)

Under these 3 assumptions, the infinite sum simplifies to the sum from x=c to x=d -1 of p(0)[f(x+1)-f(x)] (since f(x) = f(x+1) outside that domain, and p(x) = p(0) in that domain), which evaluates to p(0)[f(d)-f(c)], which is approximately p(0) (since f(d) is about 1 and f(c) is about 0). In other words, the probability that the voter will influence the election is the same as in the ideal election: the probability of a tie. Smearing f(x) out (as through judicial interference) creates other problems for the election, but it does not change the impact that an individual has on the results.

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Blar

[This formatting is annoying. Let's hope it all works out this time (and why is there no preview?)]

But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race.

This is not true. The method by which close elections are settled has basically no impact on a voter's chances of being pivotal. One way to think of it is that, even in a close election, a swing of a few thousand votes will switch which candidate wins, so there must be one voter in there who switches the outcome, even if we don't know who.

Here's a more mathematical way of looking at it. For an election of Candidate A vs. Candidate B, we want to find the probability that a single voter will change the outcome of the election by voting for A instead of staying home. Let x be the number of votes for A minus the number of votes for B. Let f(x) be the prior probability that A will win if x is the vote differential. Let p(x) be the prior probability that the vote differential will be x if the voter does not vote. Then the voter's influence on the election is the infinite sum over all x of p(x)[f(x+1)-f(x)]. (We are assuming that the vote cast by this voter is counted.)

In an ideal election, f(x)=1 for all x gt 0 and f(x)=0 for all x lt 0 (and I suppose f(0) would be .5) (due to html programming, gt = "greater than", lt = "less than"). If you assume that p(-1)=p(0), which is a very reasonable assumption if the number of voters is large, then you can verify that the infinite sum simplifies to p(0). In other words, the probability that a single voter influences the election equals the probability of a tie (assuming he does not vote). That sounds reasonable enough.

But what about a non-ideal election, where the action in f(x) is not all between x=-1 and x=1? I claim that the voter has just as large an impact as in the ideal election, as long as there exist integers e and d, with e lt 0 lt d, such that these 3 conditions hold:

1. f(e) is approximately 0
2. f(d) is approximately 1
3. p(x) is approximately constant for all x where e lte x lt d. Note: lte is "less than or equal to"

This means that the uncertainty created by intervening courts and so forth does not cover too wide a domain of values of x, so p(x) is relatively flat on this domain. This should be true, assuming that there are millions of voters and that a lead of a few thousand votes is enough to just about guarantee an election win. (In the ideal election, we would have e=-1 and d=1.)

Under these 3 assumptions, the infinite sum simplifies to the sum from x=e to x=d of p(0)[f(x+1)-f(x)] (since f(x) = f(x+1) outside that domain, and p(x) = p(0) in that domain), which evaluates to p(0)[f(d)-f(e)], which is approximately p(0) (since f(d) is about 1 and f(e) is about 0). In other words, the probability that the voter will influence the election is the same as in the ideal election: the probability of a tie. Smearing f(x) out (as through judicial interference) creates other problems for the election, but it does not change the impact that an individual has on the results.

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JanneM

I think you're missing something rather fundamental. There was an election here in Japan recently. As a foreigner, I am of course not allowed to vote. I'm in fact not even allowed inside the voting chamber. Do you think I went there anyway? You bet.

Take a normal, lazy Sunday afternoon. You could be lounging about at home, reading the paper and doing chores. Or you could be going out for an event, mingle with people, see a bit of a spectacle. Go and vote, in other words. See other people milling about. Feel the solemnity and and be propped up by your evident importance as your credentials are duly and meticulously inspected and you can get behind a privacy curtain for your (your!) choice. hear the final, desperate pitches of party representatives (and if you're lucky, an impromptu debate. If you're _really_ lucky, a fistfight). Then, at night, you have the non-stop national all-night, all-party rumble of the vote counting, reported with meticulous detail on half a dozen TV-channels, complete with reactions from the party faithful as new events happen. Just like sports, it's a lot more fun to watch if you have a horse in the race - if you have voted and have someone to root for, in other words. It's a show, it's a carneval, it's a race, and it's on only one single time every few years!

Yes, being civic is a small part, as is having your voice heard. Most, I think, is it's a great alternative to mowing the lawn, seeing a movie or inspecting your navel lint.

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gOdzi11a

In their article, Levitt and Dubner seem to describe the voter turnout issue as a "free rider" problem, where individuals can avoid the costs of participating in something that benefits everyone.

Using the failure of mail-in votes as an example, they suggest that social sanction might solve low voter turnouts; ie: you ensure that voting is a social event where everyone can see who does and does not vote.

There is a test for this assertion: we would expect that voting turnout would be higher in those areas where neighbors know each other and interact. In those atomized neighborhoods where people can live anonymously, voter turnout should be lower. Has anybody performed this test?

Anyway, in Canada, where I live, poll workers keep lists of eligible voters. When a voter arrives, their name is crossed off the list. Would it be too much an invasion of privacy to post this list on a wall where everyone could see it? Just names, mind you, no addresses or phone numbers (the poll workers could keep control of that list).

Actually, dyed fingers, like those famously used recently in Iraq, would serve the same function without any loss of privacy. Is there an alternative that is not so messy?

And if kegs of whisky are too much, perhaps the polling stations could have coffee and doughnuts, and there could be a separate lounge where neighbors could hang out and socialize for a short time. This would be fun for some people, and as a side benefit, people would know who was fulfilling their civic duty and who was not.

Of course, neighbors who do not know or care about each other are not going to care about social sanction.

Is this why we keep voting in politicans who enact policies which ignore dysfuctional communities that need help, while benefitting tight-knit communities that don't (reducing further the benefits of voting in those vulnerable communities)? Is this what economists call a Nash equilibrium? Is there a way out of this for people who need their neighbors to vote?

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GamblingEconomist

If millions of people vote and the standard economic model predicts that people should not vote, the problem is probably with the model not with the people. It reminds me of the saying that for economists real life is a special case. In this particular situation, the fault of the economists is that they take the utility of leisure and likewise the cost of effort too literally.

People gain a utility from being part of democracy regardless of whether they are the deciding vote. When doing an action that brings them utility they probably don't mind the "costs" that are associated with doing them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my fellow grad students about why professors with tenure bother to be the dissertation advisor for students when it is takes costly labor and it does not obviously advance their career. All of the indoctrinated future economists were coming up with theories of the probability that the student will be famous and therefore help the professor's career later on. My contention is that professors simply like helping students do interesting projects which is why they became professors in the first place.

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gattaca

So all of the Bush administration and America's tripe about being "democracy" and voting rights to people around the world is is just a sham for pushing forward other agendas? I thought so.

Fred

I am deeply appreciative of the efforts of those concerned that I vote my economic interests. In particular I would like to thank the following:

Thanks to the communists who think it is in my economic interest to vote for them.

Thanks to the socialists who think it is in my economic interest to vote for them.

Thanks to the Democrats who think it is in my economic interest to vote for them.