The Illusory Power of the Vote

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the reasons we are told to treasure democracy is the power and influence every one of us is meant to have over the government through voting. This is taken on face value to be true, and to be a hallmark of what makes the democratic system better than alternatives–like say, sophiarchism. Today, I’d like to propose the rather radical notion that the value to any given individual of the right to vote approaches zero, that, moreover, voting is an irrational act, and the social value of voting is grossly overrated.

Let’s imagine that you live in Wyoming. Why Wyoming? Wyoming is the least populous US state–with a population of 568,158, your vote counts for the most if you live in Wyoming when you vote for senate or president. How much does your vote count for? Well, if everyone in Wyoming voted, 1/568,158. You’d have 0.000176% of the power. Let’s imagine that you’re a massive fraudster, that you manage to vote 1,000 times. Even then, you amount to 0.176% of the power–not even enough to make a difference if the election is a 51-49 split. Now, the clever reader notices that I didn’t exclude all the people who are ineligible to vote or who just don’t bother voting. Surely that increases the amount of power that the individual vote has? Sure, negligibly. In 2008, 254,658 people voted in Wyoming. That means than you, our Wyoming resident, would have had a whopping 0.000392% of the power. Oh, and did I mention that John McCain won the state of Wyoming 164,958 to 82,868? That’s around twice as many McCain votes as Obama votes.

But surely, if all the people who hadn’t voted in Wyoming had shown up, things could have been different? Surprisingly, not at all. Those 254,658 voters amount to 64.1% of eligible Wyoming voters, so unless you’re willing to assume that at least 92.4% of those inactive voters went Obama’s way, it would have made absolutely no difference whatsoever. To the outcome in Wyoming.

Of course, Wyoming is a reliably red state. What if you’re in a swing state? Perhaps your vote matters there? In 2008, the closest race between Obama and McCain took place in North Carolina. Obama won North Carolina by 4/10th of a percentage point. What does 4/10ths of a percentage point amount to in North Carolina? A mere 14,177 votes. Now, it’s very possible in North Carolina that if all eligible voters showed up to vote, McCain could have taken the state. It would have required a mere 50.27% of those outstanding votes. However, could any one of those people who did not vote change the outcome? Certainly not. Even if someone went and got 10,000 people who otherwise would have not voted to show up for McCain, it would have been insufficient. Somehow, I doubt that any “get out the vote” campaign raised turnout by anywhere near that much. Regardless, the individual voter has no statistically significant power.

The argument will of course be made that “well sure, the individual vote is very small, but many of them together add up and make a difference”. Yes indeed–the most commonly held sentiment or political opinion will triumph. What sort of person has the average political opinion? The average person. In democratic politics, if you’re not average, you don’t matter. You’re an outliar, there are too few of you to counter average sentiment and swing an election one way or the other.

There’s an old quote about democracy. It goes something like this:

I reject any form of government in which the opinion of the village idiot is given the same weight as the opinion of Aristotle.

A poignant line, but the situation is even worse than that. The opinion of all the Aristotles in a democratic state count nothing at all relative to the large masses of average voters. This means that candidates and political parties do not even attempt to appeal to the Aristotles. Why bother running an intelligent campaign of ideas and policies too complicated for any but the deeply involved and interested to understand if a crushing majority of the voting population is happy to vote based on propaganda telling them that Obama’s giving out welfare money for free, or that all anti-abortion republicans hate women, or that spending cuts will make the economy grow?

Maybe democracy worked when the problems were a little less complicated, when the world wasn’t so globalised and the issues being voted on had more to do with the day to day lives of everyday people. Local elections arguably are still that way. But at the national level, where an understanding of macroeconomics, international relations theory, moral philosophy, and so much more is necessary merely to comprehend the nature of our problems, let alone to devise solutions to them, it doesn’t work these days. The average voter just doesn’t have the background, or the time to develop the background, even if he were ambitious.

None of this is to say that intellectuals need to be given power in order to take advantage of the rest of society. This is not an “us versus them” dichotomy, it’s not black and white. The average person is better off not voting, because the average person has a habit of voting for false prophets, for appealing people of oratory skill, or people who promise that our problems are just so simple, that if we only did this or that easy little thing, everything would work itself out. We are all hurting because of the preeminence the democratic system gives to the mediocre voter’s mediocre choices, the mediocre voter most of all, as the middle class continues to be squeezed, as the poor continue to struggle, as gaps between rich and poor continue to widen.

In the democratic system, the average voter is tricked into hurting both himself and his country again and again, while other people receive the benefits. Yet, the average voter treasures the vote and accuses those of us who question the merits of democracy or attempting to marginalise or destroy him. There is a great line that comes to me from The Lord of the Rings, in which Gandalf, an extraordinary intellectual talent, says the following to Bilbo, a rather mediocre but well-meaning hobbit, as he requests that Bilbo surrender a ring of great power:

Bilbo Baggins, do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks. I am not trying to rob you. I am trying to help you.

Such should be the sentiment of the sophiarchist.