Friday, September 28, 2012

On Voting

People are always asking me: "Bart, how should I decide who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election?" In the future I will refer these people to this blog post.

My advice is simple, but surprisingly controversial: "You should vote for the candidate that you actually want to become president." This is controversial, it turns out, because it seems to give people license to vote for a candidate other than a Republican or a Democrat.

People go nuts about this. They say that voting for anyone but a Republican or a Democrat is wasting your vote. But that's nonsense, because it is literally impossible to waste your worthless vote.

Note well: your vote doesn't appreciably affect who becomes president. No presidential election has been decided by one vote, and no presidential election ever will be. What about Florida in 2000? The lesson there is that the margin of error in any state-wide election is hundreds, if not thousands, of votes. In other words, your one vote is statistically insignificant. It doesn't affect who wins, and it doesn't affect who loses. Voting on the premise that you are affecting the result is, in a word, madness.

The typical rejoinder at this point is: "If everyone thought that way, no one would vote!" The premise of this rejoinder is that the only good reason to vote is to determine who wins. This premise, too, is nonsense. There are many other perfectly defensible reasons to vote. For example: because you a patriot; because you are a democrat; because it's your duty; because you like feeling part of something bigger than yourself; because you like participating in politics; because... because... because... Pretty much anything other than the insane fantasy that you are actually The Decider who is determining the outcome.

Note also that there are actually two distinct questions here: (1) whether to vote; and (2) how to vote if you do vote. A person could rationally conclude that there is no reason to vote, but that is not my advice. My advice is about how to cast your vote once you've decided, for whatever reason, to go to the polls.

Again, here's the advice: vote for the candidate that you actually want to become president.

So, you might respond, should I vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein since I'm a leftist who is disappointed with Obama? Almost certainly not. Remember, you have to want the recipient of your vote to actually become president. I'm not advocating that you use your vote to "send a message," because that's just as stupid as thinking that your vote will affect the outcome. Your vote sends no discernible message. Instead, before you vote for Dr. Stein, you have to actually imagine a world where she becomes the President. Imagine President Stein working with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. Compare that to a world with President Obama in his second term. Which scenario is actually more likely to advance your preferred policies? If you can honestly say that the President Stein scenario is preferable to the President Obama scenario, then go ahead and vote for her. But I suspect most people tempted to vote Green would actually prefer that Democrat Obama be president. Not all—but most.

The same is probably true for most libertarians tempted to vote for Gary Johnson. If you really think it through, you'll probably conclude that you'd rather have Obama or Romney in charge. The exception is if you actually want the chaos and minor revolution that would probably result from Gary Johnson becoming president. Some people actually do want that.

Finally, you may ask why my thought-experiment method of voting is preferable to using The Decider Fantasy. There is a simple reason: The Decider Fantasy in some (but probably not very many) cases convinces people to vote for a candidate that they don't actually want to win. That is sad. By comparison, if everyone followed my advice the President would be the person who the most people actually want to be president. This strikes me as a very defensible result.


  1. I think the paradox of voting is consistent with a lot of "irrational" human behavior, which I define as conduct whose certain and real costs overwhelmingly exceed any likely benefit. (No better example than the lottery.) Our minds are deeply and fundamentally "programmed" to be self-centered, to exaggerate our power and our significance, incapable of fully appreciating our insignificance, our ignorance, our powerlessness. "Prove" to people they cannot ever win the lottery or that their vote will make no difference ever. Most will hear you out, and then buy a few tickets and/or vote (including me).

  2. Actually, your chances of winning the lottery are a lot better than the chances of your vote deciding who becomes president. And if the jackpot is big enough, playing the lottery is actually "rational". E.g., if the odds of winning are 1 in 100,000,000 and a ticket costs a dollar, it's a good bet if the jackpot (after taxes) is more than $100,000,000 (because your "expected return" is greater than your investment/bet).

    Your point about human psychology is astute, and I agree wholeheartedly. But the point of realizing the insignificance of your vote is not to feel bad about your own "irrational" voting behavior but rather to feel superior to others who nonsensically accuse you of "wasting your vote" when you use it in a way they don't like.

  3. But why not state the obvious--the thing that might actually make people feel better than just telling them their own vote is insignificant? Yes, statistically speaking no one person or vote determines an election. But that isn't the same as saying the vote doesn't matter. All the votes together are what matter. The preponderance of votes is the thing, not the individual vote. And then we have to figure in the workings of the electoral college. But I don't see the point or the reality of saying a single vote is "insignificant." A dollar is insignificant, generally, until you personally have a million of them together to spend as you wish. But that doesn't mean that any one dollar doesn't matter. Having zero of those single dollars would be a drag, but being "on the way" to a preponderance of dollars is not insignificant.

    1. As stated in my old comment above, the point is to let you fell good about voting for who you want to win, which is after all what Democracy is supposed to be all about. I see no downside in this.

  4. “... if everyone followed my advice the President would be the person who the most people actually want to be president. This strikes me as a very defensible result.”

    Ah, I wish I’d seen this sooner. The conclusion you claim is not quite right.

    If everyone follows your advice the winner will be the person with the largest minority; they may well be the person whom “THE MOST people” actually don’t want.

    Any rational voter needs to consider all the facts; including the likelihood of their preference winning, and worst-case scenarios. If the worst case is not too bad, then a rational person can vote accordingly. In that situation your idealism is reasonably rational.

    But if the worst case is something they recognize as truly horrendous, then a rational person will vote accordingly. Ignoring pertinent facts is idealistic and foolish; a rational, realistic person recognizes that mediocre is better than awful.

    This is merely a variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

    sean s.


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