The Case Against Voting

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the United States, the midterm elections are upon us. Every election it’s the same thing–my Facebook feed is full of messages from friends telling each other to vote. There’s 31,000 flavors of platitude on offer. “Make your voice heard.” “Every vote counts.” “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”  P-Diddy famously came up with his own slogan–vote or die:

I’m a grad student in political science. I love reading, writing, and thinking about politics. I used to be all about voting. I voted in 2010, and I called people urging them to vote in 2008. I don’t vote anymore.  Here’s why.

The purpose of any justifiable political act is to make the world a better place for morally relevant beings.  I used to vote because I used to believe that voting did make the world a better place. When I went to college, I began reading a lot of substantive academic research about political systems. It’s rarely talked about outside of academic circles, but this research overwhelmingly indicates that  the choice to vote does not make the world a better place. In The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan illustrates this with a fun hypothetical.

Let’s say you’re voting in a major national election (Brennan suggests that there are just over 122 million voters, the same number that voted in the presidential election in 2004). Brennan models a very close election–each citizen has a 50.5% chance of voting for candidate A and a 49.5% chance of voting for candidate B. To add in a sweetener to encourage you to vote, if your candidate wins the election, you will personally receive $33 billion in benefits, far more than any individual citizen receives as a result of any real world election. How much do you think your vote is worth to you given those parameters?

Brennan did the math, and calculated that even given these parameters, your vote is only worth $4.77 X 10-2650. That’s 2,648 orders of magnitude less than the value of a penny. Indeed, even if you were to receive ten thousand million trillion dollars if your candidate won, the expected value of your vote would still be thousands of orders of magnitude below a penny.  Bear in mind, this is modelling a very close election in which you are to be awarded a fabulously unrealistic sum in the event your candidate wins. In a normal election, or worse, a normal election that will be decided by more than half a percentage point, the expected value of your vote is thousands of times smaller.

Why is your vote worth so little? Because no matter how many people vote or do not vote in an election, all that matters is that the winning side has one more vote than the losing side does. This means that an individual’s vote only changes the outcome of an election if it the decisive vote–if it breaks a tie. In a national election with a substantive number of voters, the chances that the election will end in a tie unless you cast the decisive ballot are extraordinarily small–about the same as your chance of winning the Powerball lottery 128 times in a row. Amazingly, for every five minutes you spend driving to the polling booth, you’re average expected car accident externality is $9.5 X 10-5. This means that the expected cost of any car accident you may have, while very small, is still many times larger than the value of your vote.

Now, when people are presented with this information, they often respond by comparing voting to drops of water in a rainstorm. If there were no drops of water, there could be no rainstorm. If no one votes for a candidate, he cannot win. This is true, but as an argument for voting it relies on a sleight of hand. When you are deciding whether or not to vote, you are not deciding what everyone else will do. You are not even deciding what everyone else in similar circumstances will do. You are deciding exclusively for yourself. You have no reason to believe that your decision to vote will cause a statistically significant number of other people to vote who would otherwise not do so. You have even less reason to believe that if those other people did vote, they would vote the same way you will. Given the research on voter turnout, you can be certain that enough people will vote that your vote will not be statistically meaningful.

So why do people try to raise voter turnout? While individual votes never matter, large groups of votes can be statistically significant. It matters whether young people, black people, or evangelical Christians vote, but only as a group. No individual matters. When P-Diddy tells young people to “vote or die”, he can give all sorts of reasons why millions of young people should vote, but no reason why any given young person should. Even groups of young people, black people, or evangelical Christians don’t matter. In state and national elections, it takes thousands, sometimes even millions of people to have a realistic chance of altering the outcome.  You and everyone you know personally are not enough people to matter in a state or national election, even a close one. Even if you personally controlled the voting behavior of hundreds of Facebook friends, this would come to naught. Only large demographics matter. We are all part of demographics, but paradoxically there are few if any of us who have enough influence to change a demographic outcome in a meaningful way. There are nearly 39 million African-Americans. To raise African-American voter turnout by 1% (which even in most cases would still be insufficient to change an election outcome), one must influence the votes of 390,000 people. There are almost 2,000 people who follow this blog, scattered all over the earth. Even if every one of my followers read this piece, was African American, and was willing to vote however I advised them to (three ridiculous premises), I would need to expand my audience 195 times just to get to 1%. And that’s just the African-American demographic. So I can rest easy writing this piece–there is no substantive chance that I could cause harmful political outcomes by dissuading you from voting or by inadvertently convincing you to vote for the wrong person. Back in 2008, I could have spent weeks calling people urging them to vote. I never would have called enough. It was futile.

Voting well is collectively good and voting poorly is collectively harmful, but when we make individual decisions, we do not have the power to act as collective bodies. Every time you drive a car somewhere, you contribute to collective harms (e.g. air pollution, climate change). The thing is, driving your car is only harmful as a collective activity. An individual car cannot generate enough emissions to substantively change the quality of the open air or cause the globe to warm. It only matters if vast numbers of people do it, and when we are deciding whether or not to drive, we are never deciding for everyone, only for ourselves. In each individual case, the amount of benefit we receive from driving vastly exceeds our any harm caused by our cars. Yet add up an immense number of cars, and we reach a tipping point where the costs suddenly get much larger than they were before. The atmosphere can handle many tons of CO2, but one ton over that threshold and suddenly the costs are massively greater than they were just one ton below. No individual driver independently causes this, and yet there it is.

We can’t credit individuals for collective benefits, and we can’t blame them for collective harms, because if only the individual participates, nothing good or bad comes to pass. This does not make the collective benefits and harms any less real. This election matters, even if your vote does not. Air pollution is a real problem caused by society as a whole even though no one individual is to blame for it. Consequently, any policy solution to an air pollution problem must necessarily be implemented collectively, whether it be auto emissions standards, carbon taxes, or what have you.  Stopping any one given individual from driving makes no difference. We have a lot of political problems in the United States because large groups of people vote badly or fail to vote well. These problems cannot be solved by an individual decision to vote or not to vote. They can only be resolved with large scale action organized by powerful actors that command immensely more influence than the average citizen.

It’s comforting to think of one’s individual vote as a powerful tool for doing good. We all want to believe that our voices matter, that we have influence over how our government and society operate. The truth is that the power of the individual vote is a dangerous illusion that lulls us into a false sense of security. When I voted, I felt as though I was making a difference, that I was making the world a better place. I wasn’t. I was misleading myself about my level of influence and excusing myself from trying to do things that would make a difference on that basis. In the same way, people who avoid polluting in their day to day lives but take no other action to combat air pollution or climate change are fooling themselves. They believe they are making a difference when in reality they remain complicit bystanders.

So if voting is futile, what should an individual do to try to make the world a better place? I’ve been trying to build influence, to gain a platform for myself that allows me to project more ideas to more people in a more influential way. This blog is a part of that project. It does not have anywhere near the level of influence required, but it helps by archiving my ideas and giving me opportunities to get better as a writer and arguer. There are many ways to get the influence you need to make a difference–some people get extraordinarily rich, some people run charities, some people run media companies, some people try to hold political office, some people write spectacularly influential books, some people create large scale protest movements, and so on. The trouble is that all of these things are scarce. We can’t all be rich, we can’t all run charities, we can’t all hold offices, we can’t all write influential books, and we can’t all create major protest movements. Political power and influence is always, in all societies, a scarce commodity that collects in large quantities in the hands of very small numbers of people. It’s the iron law of oligarchy. The democratic system does not create an equitable distribution of power. The average citizen who votes but takes little other political action has almost no power at all. A citizen who is extraordinarily rich, runs a large charity or media company, holds office, writes influential books, or starts movements commands power and influence that can be greater than that of thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions, even.

So when election time comes, I don’t vote. Instead, I try to be honest with myself. I remind myself how little power and influence most of us have, and how much further I will have to go to make the world a better place. What should you do this election? Do whatever you like, so long as you remember that it doesn’t matter, and that it doesn’t excuse you from any obligation you may feel you have to your fellow man.