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.


You might be surprised to know that the author(s) of a pretty cool blog which this site references both voted in the 2004 election.

As you correctly pointed out, there are non economic(pecuinary) reasons for voting, for example, the utility of saying "I voted", the utility of having conversations on whom you voted for, etc, etc.

Charlie Wood

I assert that for any indivudual voting is in fact completely futile, and that the value of that individual's vote is not "very very small", but rather zero. "Heresy!" I hear the citizens say. OK, then give me an example of where your vote decided an election. Then again, the idea that voting is futile is extremely dangerous, since it could change the outcome of an election if it took enough hold. So do you civic duty and tell people it's important to vote. Oh, wait...


No problem, Charlie.



Best regards.

Princess Leia

Volunteers were working so hard in the "swing states" last year, I just have to believe those votes were worth something.

Don't yet think we in the US are at the point where there could be 60K votes cast in a town of 40K, as can be the case in some other (corrupt) countries.

As Obi-Wan said, "I BELIEVE IN DEMOCRACY!" ;-)

BTW, those involved in the world of competitive figure skating don't generally vote either. My theory is that if you're really intense into something (economics, skating, etc.), "the rest is just details." A shame, really...


A number of things. One, is that it is not necessarily against Speilburg's economic self-interest to vote democratic, he could very well believe that he would be better off in the future, by being worse off today. As for the cost being low for all, isn't that one of the complaints about Ohio 2004, and Florida 2000. The rural area's had very short waits to vote, and the urban areas had very long (Ohio was more than 3 hours in some cases). If these two areas had the same politcal makeup it would be one thing, but since they did not, it could very well have skewed the election. I would like to see an economist do a "cost of voting" breakdown for Ohio 2004

John S. Leyba

I agree with "anonymous" about Spielberg: In a society with a flatter income distribution, more people could spend to see more movies. His work is valued by the number of times people see it, not necessarily how great it is or the luxury premium the super-rich might be willing to pay to experience it. Bill Gates still pays $10 to go to the movies like everyone else (well, if he goes, but you get my point). And he's not going to see the same movie 1 million times, no matter how good it is. If a million poor people could afford to see an extra movie each this year, that's a lot of money.

As for this burgeoning economist, I vote for a variety of reasons. One is that many friends and family look to me as a resource that they can tap on certain issues. Living in California, our ballots booklets generally run dozens of pages, and our scantron forms were four legal size sheets in fall 2004. My vote alone isn't worth a whole lot, but if I get 15 people to vote similarly, that's huge. And I speak with a lot more conviction when I've actually voted.

I've not yet missed an election. And after losing a school board seat by 199 out of 18213 votes last fall, you can bet I'll vote every election that I can in the future.


scott cunningham

Whoever figures out the reason why we vote needs to also try and figure out why we tip waitresses along interstate highways. That one is as perplexing as voting, if not moreso. They both defy simple explanation, since in both, the benefits to the individual agent are miniscule, while the costs are almost definitely relatively large.

Nick Montgomery

I'm an econ graduate student and I dont know how many times I've argued with people that one's vote doesnt matter. This is not to say one cant make a difference by influencing how others vote, but in order for it to be worth it for you to go and vote and for it to matter the expected utility from voting must be high enough. This requires that either the probability of affecting the election is high enough or the change in utility from the different outcomes is high enough. Anonymous cites evidence of a single vote deciding a BC election, but this is irrelevant because in expectation the likelihood is extremely small and, even if it wasnt, you would have to care enough about who wins.

That being said, I proudly vote in all elections I can because I gain satisfaction in participating in the voting process and I posit others do too. Sure voting [insert party here] might be better for my economic/social self-interest, but I'm proud to be [insert party here] and "just dont trust those [insert other party here]" or "I like to stick it to those darn [insert other party here]". Personally, I just gain satisfaction by participating and NOT voting for either democrats or republicans. Voting for a candidate seems to be only to be in the candidate's self-interest.



Well Scott, perhaps you'll find the answer by reading the first chapter of Freakonomics. There are not only economic incentives but also social and moral incentives. So, though tipping a waitperson on an interstate highway is a good way to lose $3, it is also a good way to do the right thing. When we realize that the people we are tipping count on those tips to eat themselves then *most* of us feel like that's a pretty good reason. In other words, most people have preferences over not only their own consumption, but the consumption of others too. Is that explanation simple enough for you?


Isn't this mostly a sophisticated form of the prisoner's dilemma?

Okay, let's consider an extreme scenario: maybe everyone in America reads the comments on this blog and decides not to vote in the next presidential election. In that case, one vote *would* make a difference. Whoever voted would get to choose the winner.

Maybe that will never happen, but it could. The fact is that 99% of politics is showing up. If you've ever been to a municipal board meeting, you'll find that the three or four people who show up get their views disproportionately represented and considered. On a large scale, the same thing is true of elections; except there, it's not about only you showing up, it's about your "team" showing up.

As annoying as I find the sports metaphors that pervade American politics, they more closely reflect the truth than the idea of one man one vote. People invested in the political process not only vote, they encourage others to vote similarly, and a big part of that encouragement is the creation of a feeling of community and obligation. Actually showing up to the "game" helps create that feeling of obligation (he did it, so I should do it too).

In the end, there is a big payoff to having your "team" show up in greater numbers. Sure, every vote may not end up being necessary, but the opportunity is there.

Why do benchwarmers show up to basketball games? Why do understudies show up to rehearsal?



Part of the value of voting is in being able to honestly say that you voted.


I agree with Dan, in most of the meetings that I've attended (municipal level) the decisions are biased in favor of those that come. So if one expects to be the minority in a meeting then there's no incentive to come... self-fulfilling prophecy.

The situation is probably different voting where there is less interaction, e.g. presidential elections. But once again, if you expect the majority of population to vote against your candidate you wouldn't even show up then. So expectations are very important in such voting. And things can go wrong if these expectations are arbitrary.


I vote because I get to leave work to do so!


Pierce Brosnan in this week's TIME magazine [June 20, pg. 75] said he became a U.S. citizen just to have a voice/vote. I wonder if he had read your Wash. Post Q&A first if he would have changed his mind?


One vote will not be pivotal in large elections, so in that sense it is futile to vote. I think the papers by Pensendorfer on strategic voting based on the probability of being pivotal are ridiculous.

That being said, it is a civic duty to vote anyway because without voters our democratic system does not work. There are many who free ride off the voters by not voting and there are many that take pride in not free-riding and actually doing their civic duty.

See, Mr. Dubner, I knew you were becoming an economist. I see Prof. Levitt posted a newspaper article today with no economics included.


Tipping is such a social norm that it is really part of the price of the meal and not an act of genrousity. People tip on interstate highways for the same reasons they do not "dine-and-dash" even when there is little chance of being caught.


Don't overlook the utility of not being killed by P. Diddy.




There's a simple solution to the paradox, based on two premises:

1. A single vote *is* valuable. We know that because political campaigns spend money to get (or steal, or buy) single votes. The probability of being pivotal is small, but the stakes are large, so a vote ends up being worth, perhaps, $20-- and that's just the private value to the political campaign. The social value is higher.

2. Most people are altruistic, to some extent. Thus, they are willing to donate their vote to the community.

This argument works best for poor people, with low time value. It predicts that CEO's will not vote.

--Eric Rasmusen


I believe part of the reason Spielberg and many others in Hollywood lean left is because their income is dependent on the protection of the First Amendment.