Steve G.

Vote By Your Principles, Not By Habit

In Politics on September 17, 2008 at 11:56 am

Let’s explore the infamous “Wasted Vote Syndrome”.  For a vote to be “wasted”, it has to be cast in vain, without furthering the purpose for which it was cast.  So what are the reasons for which people vote?  Why do they even vote at all?

This is a surprisingly difficult question — difficult enough that economists call it the “Paradox of Voting” (or Downs Paradox, after the seminal 1957 paper by Anthony Downs).  They observe that the cost of voting is relatively high compared to its objective benefit to the voter.  To vote you have to invest at least an hour of your precious time — analyze your choices, travel to a polling place, stand in a line or two, enter your choices, and travel back. (Voting by mail only changes the time calculation a little.)  Your payoff from voting has to be discounted by the probability that your vote will tip the outcome of the election.  Even if you expect the outcome of an election to have a big effect on your life, the odds that your vote will change that outcome are usually vanishingly small.  When you do the math, you see that the net expected personal benefit to you from adding your vote to your candidate’s total is far less than the cost of the gas it takes to get to the polls — or even the cost of the stamp to mail your ballot.

So why do people bother to vote at all? The standard explanation is

that voting yields some kind of psychological benefit, apart from any coldly calculated material return on the effort invested.  One component of that psychological benefit is surely the basic primate need to line up with the winning side.  For most of the millions of years of hominid evolutionary history, lining up with the winning faction in the tribe was often potentially a matter of life or death.  Even today we’re usually under social pressure not to keep our voting preference a secret.  Humans have enjoyed the secret ballot for only a few centuries, and that’s not nearly long enough for us to shake the feeling that we better back somebody with a decent chance of actually taking over our tribe.

The largest component of voting’s psychological benefit, however, has optimistically been posited to be that voters derive “expressive” utility from voting — they like to feel that they’ve stood up for their beliefs and principles.  If this is indeed the reason for which you vote, then the truly “wasted” vote is the vote that doesn’t accurately express your beliefs.  A vote for one of the two incumbent parties is a vote that says “Take me for granted; I think you’re doing a fine job, and keep up the good work.”  If that’s not the message you want to send, then your vote is in fact “wasted” — even if the candidate you vote for wins.  That’s why we Libertarians say: the only wasted vote is the one that doesn’t express your principles.

A new theory was proposed in 2007 by Edlin, Gelman and Kaplan: Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote To Improve the Well-Being of Others.  They contend that “for voters with ‘social’ preferences” — i.e., preferences about how an election will affect people other than themselves — “the expected utility of voting is approximately independent of the size of the electorate” because bigger elections can affect more people.  For such voters, the expected utility from voting will be roughly the size of the benefit that the election might provide to the average citizen, because the number of people benefiting (N) is roughly balanced by the 1/N probability of tipping the election.

The problem with this new analysis is that it only considers one election in isolation.  Even on its own terms, voting for the lesser of two evils to somehow maximize your “social preference” is subject to a dizzying regression called a Keynesian Beauty Contest.  The concept was first applied to equity markets, pointing out that the price of a stock will not really be what investors think is its fundamental value, but rather will be what investors think other investors will think is that value.  In the context of voting, that regression may not yield a single sensible equilibrium if voters are very unsure about what candidates have the best chances of winning.

But in fact we have detailed information about the probabilities of victory for various candidates and parties, and that information is the key to recognizing the Wasted Vote fallacy.  First of all, polling data and historical data about “safe” districts can almost always combine to tell you that your one vote has no real chance of tipping the outcome in the district (or electoral college state) where it will be counted.  Rather than depressing you, this should liberate you to vote your conscience.  So even a believer in Wasted Vote logic should only vote for the lesser of two evils when the empirical data show that one evil leads the other only by a nose (or a horn or a hoof).

However, there is a consideration that makes even that strategy suspect.  Again, the way we can anticipate how many votes that a candidate or party will attract in this election is to look at how many votes that (or similar) contestants attracted in past elections.  When you realize this, you understand that in a very real sense your vote in this election will influence the outcome not only of this election, but all future elections run with a similar set of candidates and voters.  So voting for your habitual incumbent party in this election sends the enduring message to future voters — and to election-watching politicians — that there is no danger you will stop voting by habit.  You have to balance 1) the alleged benefit of tinkering at the margins of the present status quo with 2) the potential huge benefit of overturning the status quo in favor of the principles you actually believe in.

Thus the only truly wasted vote is to vote by your reflexes, and not by your principles.

  1. This is kind of a long-winded and stuffy attempt at a scholarly boring article that lectures the choir. Classic Holtz. Capozzi will love it.

  2. A wasted vote is:

    A) One made while drunk;
    B) One made for a major party candidiate in 99.6% of the races;
    C) One not made;
    D) All of the Above.

  3. I’m abstaining from the prez race this year but plan to vote for libertarian candidates down ticket. The actual vote doesn’t matter for anything other than sending a message and this year I want to send one to the LP as well.

  4. Fairly sound analysis, but two mistakes, somewhat tangential:
    (1) Mere voting itself is almost costless – vote by mail, or stop at the polls on the way to work or to the supermarket. Informed voting is expensive – it takes a great deal of time to become informed on the issues and to determine the candidates positions on the issues (and there’s no guarantee a winning candidate will actually act in accordance with campaign promises). This means that informed voting is very expensive compared to ignorant voting. A remedy for this would be a poll tax (in the American sense, not the British sense). Making voting itself very costly makes informed voting relatively less costly compared to ignorant voting. (I expect to see a poll tax at about the same time as a Jacobite Restoration in Britain.)
    (2) The Keynesian Beauty Contest in securities applies only to the short run. An investor who correctly perceives that the market has made an error in evaluating a security is in a position to profit by selling short or going long, as the case may be.

  5. Michelle, if the anarchist Ruwart had been nominated, should I as a non-anarchist have withheld my vote from her in November, in order to “send a message” to the LP?

  6. Yes, Brian, if that was your wish. There is no point voting for anybody that doesn’t represent your viewpoint. FWIW, I actually sort of sat out a bit to see if Barr ran as a libertarian but his campaign has done a poor job of delivering anything it promised. I will concede that his “Mavericks” piece on HDNet was pretty good though. Then again, this guy’s piece in the same series was pretty good too but I wouldn’t vote for him either.

  7. I left a response comment for Brian but it seems to have been eaten.

  8. I pulled it out of akismet spam

  9. But Michelle, I’d kind of like to be able to vote for people other than myself.🙂 If you’re saying that anarchists shouldn’t vote for minarchists and minarchists shouldn’t vote for anarchists, then why should both types be in the same party?

    There is of course a threshold at which an LP candidate’s positions begin to cost her votes from Libertarians who disagree with those positions. I just hope people consider the interests of the movement and the party when they calculate where that threshold lies, and try to be fair-minded and specific when they publicly claim that a candidate has crossed it.

  10. I am considering the movement and that’s why I’ll be voting L for every other office. Need to make sure the state of Texas doesn’t need to petition for ballot access again. ;o)

  11. Besides, Barr is guaranteed to carry Texas anyway, right? Or something.

  12. My latest favorite quote of all time:

    “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it – than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” Eugene V. Debs

    And Brian, I don’t think that Michelle is saying that anarchists should not vote for minarchists. I think that she is saying that she is not going to vote for this particular big-government conservative who is running for president on the LP ticket. And she is also saying that she is going to vote for other LP candidates down ticket – many of whom I am sure are minarchists themselves.

  13. Michelle, if the anarchist Ruwart had been nominated, should I as a non-anarchist have withheld my vote from her in November, in order to “send a message” to the LP?

    If you felt that strongly about it, then yes!

  14. “And she is also saying that she is going to vote for other LP candidates down ticket – many of whom I am sure are minarchists themselves.”

    All the LP did in our area in Texas was act as spoilers to elect liberal Democrats over pro-taxpayer Republicans in a few races. They got the MAXarchists elected. I guess the message was to the socialist Democrats, grabbing the ankles, and saying “Thank you Sir, can I have a another.”

    “I just hope people consider the interests of the movement and the party when they calculate where that threshold lies”
    I agree, and I suggest that the threshold should be to find 51% of voters who want to move in the pro-freedom direction, and unify to win them, rather than to find the 3-5% hardcore warriors for liberty to split off and divide from not-as-extreme-but-freedom-friendly voters, thereby delivering races to socialists.
    Unity is strength and all that.

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