The election’s over, but if you were interested in my recent posts on whether and how your vote “counts,” you might also be interested in this recent debate that I discovered among social science bloggers, covering the same subject in a lot more detail.
If you’ve ever said something like “My vote doesn’t count, because I live in New York”, you’re the type of person who makes my head hurt. We may not know for sure how things will turn out in New Hampshire this coming Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean that an individual’s vote will “count” for much of anything in that state. The fact that everyone who knows anything about politics knows how things will go in New York (or California, or Texas) doesn’t make any meaningful difference to the question of whether individual votes in those states are likely to determine the outcome… Don’t confuse uncertainty over the final outcome with a significant probability of a single vote determining the outcome. Those two things are not even remotely the same.
Frankly, I’m starting to find this point obvious and pedantic and I’m not going to belabor it any further. Yes, there are probably a few people who really have a mistaken, wildly inflated estimate of the odds that their vote will swing an election, but I think the vast majority of people saying “My vote doesn’t count, because I live in New York” are really making a more subtle point. Like Sergey Brin in California, they’re making a top-down argument about the system, not saying anything about the literal value of a single vote. And to the extent their beliefs about the system do influence their individual decision on whether to vote, I think it’s via general frustration and apathy, not a rational chain of logic that takes any probabilities into account. The point of my posts was to break that link between frustration with the system and staying home on election day, by pointing out that if you’re considering voting at all, it’s for individual reasons that should hold even in a badly flawed system.
What’s more interesting is that even if your vote did swing the election, it would not impress these guys as a moral, meaningful or even particularly important act.
Confused? There are two things that lead political scientists to this kind of cynicism. The first is the famous “median voter theorem,” which says that any two rational candidates will both converge on the same positions in the center. It’s the academic version of saying “both parties are the same in the end, so why bother?” And the second is a tendency to model coalition politics as distributional: that is, it’s all a zero-sum game in which Democratic politicians favor policies that will benefit Democratic voters at the direct expense of Republican voters, and vice versa. So whoever’s elected, under this model, half the country benefits and the other half gets screwed, and it more or less cancels out.
You don’t have to be very far removed from a classroom to see the yawning gulf between these two theories and the real world. The two parties do have meaningfully different positions on many issues, and politics is not just distributional. It can often be a positive-sum or (sadly) negative-sum game. I’m not equipped to demonstrate these things formally, but I find them so obvious that I don’t really see the need. If academics build models that don’t correspond to reality, the burden is not on us to defend reality.
Similarly, I bristle a little at their dismissal of voting as a purely “symbolic” act or something you should only do because you “like voting.” They won’t come out and say you shouldn’t vote, but they clearly don’t see it as a big deal either way, and they think the idea of a civic duty or moral obligation to vote is just naïve idealism. I am perfectly comfortable asserting a “common sense” and even non-consequentialist belief that voting, at least for an informed citizen, is simply the right thing to do, and I think an awful lot of people would agree with me.
But if you want to see a defense of voting in these formal terms, as a “rational” act, I would recommend this cogent response from Steve Randy Waldman, whose blog I recommended here a while back. He considers voting as a social norm, not just an individual act, and points out that the costs are so low that relaxing that distributional assumption even a little bit can make it worthwhile:
…suppose that there is a general interest meaningfully correlated to election outcomes, in addition to distributional concerns. Then “idealism” about the national interest, manifest as citizens working to perceive the relationship between electoral outcomes and the general welfare, voting according to those perceptions, and encouraging others to do the same, could lead to significant improvements for all. There’s little downside and a lot of upside to the elementary-school-civics take on elections. With this kind of gamma and so low a price (polling stations are not stuck atop mountains!), even hedge fund managers and political scientists ought to be long electoral idealism.