Tag Archives: Voting Paradox

Vote As If You Are On a Mission from God

Most people thought Hillary Clinton was going to win last year. Most people thought the Orange Menace was unqualified to be President. Since they wanted to hold the next president to a high standard, media people gave inordinate attention to Clinton’s email server management, the Goldman Sachs speeches and the Clinton Foundation. FBI Director James Comey probably assumed Clinton would win so maybe he figured it would be okay to give the Republican a boost. I’m convinced lots of people voted for her main opponent or didn’t vote at all because they were sure he would never be president.

Imagine, however, that everyone registered to vote in the United States received a very special message before the election:

Hello, [your name here], this is the Voice of God. I have decided that your individual vote will determine who will be the next president. Forget the polls. Forget the other voters. Forget whether you live in a swing state. Forget the Electoral College. You and you alone will choose the next president. You are the only person receiving this message. You must think very carefully and then go vote. You must choose one of the candidates and whoever you choose will win the election. I will make it happen. It is a sure thing. Keep in mind that your decision will affect people throughout the world, so choose wisely. I am counting on you, [your name here], to choose the best person for the job. Perhaps I should add that you do not want to disappoint Us. Thank you and have a nice day.

And everyone who got the message believed they heard the Voice of God, thought about their decision (and a few other things) very seriously and then cast their vote.

Who would have won the election? Would Clinton have received the additional 78,000 votes out of the 14 million cast in three states she needed to win the Electoral College?

I believe she would have, although that may be wishful thinking. The point I’m trying to make is that we should all take voting very seriously. It makes a big difference who is elected, especially since the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right.

One problem, of course, is that the Republicans have successfully manipulated our electoral system in ways that stop or discourage people from voting (voter suppression) or dilute the impact of their votes (gerrymandering). But the other big problem is that too many people simply don’t bother to vote. Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t why they don’t bother. The mystery is why anyone does.

That’s because, given the size of our electorate and the arcane rules we follow, nobody should think their individual vote will matter. In anything but the smallest local elections, the chances of one person’s vote making a difference are infinitesimal. Understanding that, most voters see voting as consequence-free. That partly explains why so few of us bother. It also partly explains who won in November. Why not vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning if it won’t make any difference who you vote for?

Philosophers and social scientists call this problem the “paradox of voting” (or the “Downs paradox” in honor of an economist who studied it):

The paradox of voting … is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e., in an otherwise tied election) is minuscule, … the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs.

The issue was noted by Nicolas de Condorcet in 1793 when he stated, “In single-stage elections, where there are a great many voters, each voter’s influence is very small. It is therefore possible that the citizens will not be sufficiently interested [to vote]” and “… we know that this interest [which voters have in an election] must decrease with each individual’s [i.e. voter’s] influence on the election and as the number of voters increases.” In 1821, Hegel made a similar observation: “As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors.”  [Wikipedia]

There are ways to get people to vote even though their individual votes won’t matter. You can make voting mandatory (like in Australia). You can try to make voting fun (how about a free doughnut or one of those “I VOTED” stickers?). Or you could pay people to vote. 

That last option might be considered bribery, but it has been considered as government policy. The city of Los Angeles and the state of Arizona have both looked at turning elections into lotteries. One lucky voter would win a million dollars! I don’t know if anyone has thought about simply giving cash to each voter, but that would work too.

One problem with these approaches, however, is that it would encourage voting by “low information” voters, people who don’t know much about the issues or the candidates. They would only bother to vote because they were afraid of being punished or interested in a possible reward. That could be a problem, but it would be a problem worth having, since getting everyone to vote would have the biggest effect on young people and poor people. Those are the two groups least likely to vote today. Getting more of them to vote would have a big effect and a positive one.

Of course, we could simply appeal to everyone’s sense of civic duty. As citizens of a representative democracy, we are supposed to learn about the candidates and issues and then make a responsible choice. That’s how I think of voting. It’s a ritual I perform because I live in a democracy. In other words, I know my vote won’t have an effect but I do it anyway, because it feels like it’s the right thing to do. It makes me feel good to cast a ballot.

It’s clear that I don’t know how to solve this problem. I don’t know how to make our democracy more representative by getting more people to vote. I suppose it’s (very remotely) possible that God will trick everyone into voting next time by sending each of us a personal message like the one above. What I do know is that our upcoming elections are extremely important, given the lopsided amount of power the Republicans now have. Maybe the best thing to do, therefore, is to encourage everyone you know, especially the sane ones, to register and vote every chance they get. Sure, as individuals, it will be a waste of time. But as a group it will be one of the best things we can do. Let’s all pay attention and vote, and encourage others to do the same, as if we’re all on a mission from God. Need I add that it’s a mission to elect more Democrats?

For further encouragement, here’s yesterday’s column by Colbert King in The Washington Post. His conclusion:

The midterm 2018 elections can be Judgment Day for Trump. And dress rehearsal for 2020. Fume and fuss, talk back to the television, kick the can, call Trump names, vent to your heart’s content. All that changes nothing. Also probably ruins your health. What can make a difference? The ballot. Vote, vote, vote.