Waiting to Vote: $1 Billion Opportunity Cost?

(Photo: Ho John Lee)

I was on the public-radio show Marketplace Tuesday evening, interviewed about waiting (sparked, I assume, by lines of people waiting to vote).  I never vote on Election Day and never have to wait to vote: I take advantage of Texas’s early voting, which is quick and easy. I estimate the opportunity cost of people waiting in line on Tuesday — the value of their time — was around $1 billion.  Those resources would have been much better spent creating facilities for early voting in all states. For that sum, a lot of election workers’ salaries could be paid and polling facilities could be kept open from late October through early November.  An additional virtue is that more people might vote, and expanding democracy would be a good thing.  Who couldn’t support this reallocation of resources?

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  1. Siobhan says:

    So we would charge people to pay for the expansion by determining 1. How much longer they would have waited 2. The value of their time. Then they can write the govt a check. The govt can implement the new system.

    I didn’t wait at all at 8 am at my polling place. And I am a stay at home mom, so if I did, my time is economically worthless. Early voting is readily available in my area and I don’t choose to use it.

    I wonder if most of the people wasting their time really chose to use time that would have been productive. Or did they cut into their leisure time to vote? How is that determined?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Domestic production is not economically worthless. Cooking, cleaning, child care, working in the garden, etc. are all economically productive activities.

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  2. David Bley says:

    Personally, I have never understood why election day is not a holiday. My expectation is that our productivity is not all that high on election day with the level of energy put into election. Between “water cooler” discussions and computers and phones getting the latest news, efficiency can’t help but go down. Maybe with people being off, some might even volunteer to help others to vote by providing transportation or taking food to poll workers or similar things.

    We celebrate many other things that don’t seem nearly as central to America as voting.

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    • Andreas Moser says:

      Many other countries vote on a Sunday. It seems to make sense.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I’ve wondered this, too, and I have two ideas about it:

      (1) The USA doesn’t have “holidays”. It has “government holidays”. Private businesses aren’t required to follow the government’s holidays, and most (except banks) don’t follow most of them. The government can’t take the day off, because it has to run the election (poll workers, courthouse, etc.). Private businesses haven’t taken the initiative, and the government can’t.

      (2) There are actually a lot of election days. I sometimes vote three times in the same year. Other years it’s only once. So “Election Day” is a fluid concept that can’t be easily predicted very far in advance. The big election day in November can be, but not all of them.

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  3. Graeme Mulvaney says:

    Politicians – you can keep the prize, it was the obvious answer

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  4. Allan says:

    This is asking government to spend money to something it will receive no return! ROI = 0$ for government, perhaps $1 Billion for the private individuals (if they were going to use the time productively, which some would not)

    I think this is all moot because of the amazing frugality of vote-by-mail which saves time, money and has now been proven in Oregon and Washington over multiple elections

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  5. James says:

    In my own polling place (northern Nevada), it was just the opposite. Early voting at the local library had long lines; at my polling place on election day there was one person ahead of me.

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  6. Jeff says:

    It’s clear that the Republicans have an incentive to make voting more difficult in order to reduce the liberal turn out relative to the conservative. If you mandate nation wide early voting then how are Republican governors going to suppress the vote? That’s why it would be tough to pass… but maybe it’s sufficiently salient right now to get some traction.

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    • James says:

      Hummm… So your argument is that Democrats are basically lazier than Republicans?

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      • Jason says:

        It is not really a secret that higher turnout favors Democrats and has for a long time. You could say that Democratic voters are poorer and have less flexible schedules, etc., or you could say that the poor just vote Democratic because they are lazy and want more free services. Either side of the same coin.

        Nonetheless, I have always thought that Republicans had two options. 1) Try to appeal to a broader base of people. Or, 2) Use rules and tricks to keep people from voting. I cannot understand why they are working so much harder on #2 than #1.

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    • miriam says:

      My district (republican-voting, for the most part), had no lines. Which districts did, would be the question, if we were concerned about malfeasance. And I will say that the response, when I tried to set up an absentee ballot since my work hours can make it impossible for me to go to the polls, was that my employer was mandated by law to allow me to vote. Really? So I should be able to just leave my workplace, drive home, vote, drive back, and assume I’ll keep my job?
      Since I work part-time, I made sure I was off that day. Many people do not have that option.

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  7. Randy Hudson says:

    Voting will almost always have an economic cost greater than its economic benefit. The benefit of voting for the voter is psychological.

    That psychological benefit is increased by the experiences that Hamermesh seeks to bypass. Standing in line is a shared experience among the voters, which helps them all feel good about themselves.

    Furthermore, society benefits by the voters’ experience. The government created by the election is perceived to be legitimate partly due to the voters’ shared experience of casting their votes. To the extent that the “burden” of voting is taken away, the fellow-feeling with other voters — including those who voted differently — is reduced. And without that fellow-feeling, the tendency to deride those other voters and deny legitimacy to the election and the elected government will increase. That in turn harms society by reducing voluntary compliance with laws and rules promulgated by that newly-elected government.

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  8. Joe J says:

    1 billion. ok lets run the numbers. about 120 million people voted, so that puts the average opportunity cost at about $8.33 per person. Which at an average salary level puts it in at about 1/2 hour. Considering as some mentioned that early voting can take as much time as same day voting, where would the huge savings come into play? Reading and filling out a mail in form, and having someone else read them verify correctness, could easily take the same amount of time. Saving 8 every 4 years, in the grand scheme of things not worth the time it took to write the article.
    To put it in comparison, on the IRS tax forms they claim it should take a person about 22-24 hours to complete the 1040. Eliminating taxes then would save about 60 billion (more pay taxes than vote not by much), plus however much the IRS side takes.

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    • Joe J says:

      A corrilary, combine the two. Put the voting on the back of your tax form. The tax form already uses things to verify identity. And since by voting you are putting someone in charge of your tax money it is an obvious connection.

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