Political scientists widely accept that individuals have no tangible, rational reason to vote. If the decision was made from a pure rational choice perspective, we'd all stay home. A rational choice voting model looks like this:

V = PB – C

V is your net benefit from voting, and you only vote if V > 0. P is the probability of your vote deciding the election, while B is the value of your expected difference between the parties (i.e., if you are a fervent Democrat and loathe the Republicans, B is large). C is the costs of voting – time, information, attention, and so on. Here's the rub: in any reasonably sized electorate, P asymptotically approaches zero. The P*B term, for all intents and purposes, is zero (something like 0.0000000000000001). Since C > 0 (voting is never without some costs) a rational person would never vote.

But people do vote, even though the rational choice model makes sense. This is what political scientists call "the Paradox of Voting." No one should vote, yet lots of people do. The answer lies in Riker and Ordeshook (1968), who revise the model thusly:

V = PB – C + D

It's the same model, of course, with an additional term representing the "expressive" benefits of voting. In other words, you vote because it makes you feel better. D represents a sense of civic duty, the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from supporting someone you like, or the psychological conviction that your vote is helping determine the outcome. D also represents, among more sophisticated voters, an understanding of the free rider dilemma. That is, you recognize that if everyone approached the decision rationally and stayed home, turnout would be zero and therefore one or two individuals could decide the whole election. Translation: you realize that if everyone else is being rational and staying home, it is rational for you to be irrational and vote.

Tuesday was primary day in Indiana, and I did not vote. My "D" term is negative. Not only do I not get a jolly feeling from voting, I actually feel sick when I do it. Psychologically, voting implies that I think this process has any legitimacy or that I accept it as valid. Neither of those things are true. There's an anecdote attributed to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was stopped by a poor woman while traveling through the city with his entourage. He told the woman "I don't have time for your problems," to which she replied "Then you have ceased to be Emperor."** I guess you could say all of these people have ceased to be my emperors.

The phrase "rational non-voting" always cracks me up. All non-voting in the American context is rational. Hell, unless you really get a kick out of it, staying home is far more rational than voting. Given the paucity of parties, the universally unappealing candidates, and the oppressive, naked media editorializing which hammers viewers with the reality that Big Money and Big Media and Serious Experts have already decided the outcome, it's a miracle that anyone shows up.

**Suitably chastised, he stopped to talk with her.

12 thoughts on “RATIONAL NON-VOTING”

  • Since the talking heads are now saying it is over (please let it be over), do you really find Obama to be "universally unappealing"? I can understand being creeped out by his fanatics, or think he's not actually going to get us out of Iraq, but I really like his policy agenda, as well as the advisors he's surrounded himself with.

    I do like how the rational choice theory has trouble figuring out if it is a normative or positive description of what people are up to – it's almost taunting you in that first equation – "really, wouldn't you rather be watching the Family Feud right now instead of voting? Maybe go to the mall instead?" Even the "+ d" is entirely atomised gratification, another form of consumption.

    When the RAND game theorists types are at an utter loss to try and explain why someone would bother voting, it doesn't surprise me how useless they have been historically when it comes to why someone would join a guerilla resistance movement, be it in Vietnam or Iraq, and how to deal with them…

  • Ah, it's good to see that someone shares my disgust and cynicism. I've been chastised in the past for not voting for any variety of reasons, from the absurd hypothetical "What if all your candidates lose by one vote?" to the nonsensical fact that I should simply because it's my civic duty. Or people sometimes whip out that old chestnut "If you don't vote, then you give up your right to complain." I've proven that one wrong many times over!

    I'm inclined to believe that it's true that voting is a basically irrational act, but I suppose we're lucky (or unlucky?) that about 50% of the populace opts to act irrationally every four years. As a species, we've never really been known for our rational behavior, after all.

  • I can express a preference among the candidates, but I will stand behind a characterization of the field as a whole (this year and in recent history) as largely unappealing to most voters. Asking people to make a choice between John Kerry and George Bush can't help but suppress turnout, and that was nothing compared to what Clinton-McCain will do.

  • When Aristotle writes "Man is a political animal," I insert the caveat of "provided that politics are largely confined to bitching and moaning while surrendering his rights in exchange for less responsibility." We're probably lucky that fewer people vote, given the level of fundamental ignorance in this country (how people who vote for McCain will do so because they think he'll be tougher on Iraq, which they still think was responsible for 9/11?), but isn't the problem that democracy simply can't work on such a wide scale as the U.S.? Can there be anything approaching representative government in a nation this big/populous? Athens and Venice and even Switzerland work in large part because the center of power extends literally as far as the eye can see, and no farther. But how can we be expected to produce a candidate whom a majority of such a numerous and culturally and geographically diverse nation will actually view as 'their' representative?

  • 1. You are someone who has a career which revolves around politics, American politics

    2. You have very strong positions on a number of issues.

    Therefore, I don't understand how you cannot vote. I know you have a preference.

  • To you, Ed, and to all the other non-voters out there I will repeat what I always say: People have fought and died for your right to vote.

    If you can acknowledge this, and still remain at home watching Mad About You reruns on election night, then you have a sorry soul. If you deny this, then perhaps your history books were flawed.

    Unfortunately for everyone, this type of argument usually works best on Republican voters–it increases their D factor the most.

  • I don't really understand the argument about the field of candidates being "unappealing." What are you looking for – more charisma? Colorful personalities? My own opinion is that an excessive emphasis on these traits over substantive policy concerns has been detrimental to American democracy. All this vague talk about candidates' "appeal" provides fodder for the media to focus on these ridiculous, personality-driven non-stories that we've been saturated with this campaign season. When you talk about the Kerry-Bush contest providing a disincentive to vote, I saw it as a battle between an individual whose policy agenda I largely agreed with and whom I consider extremely intelligent and an individual whose policy objectives more often than not found extremely unappealing. And I was quite pissed that my preferred candidate's supposed lack of "appeal" appeared to be one of the main reasons he lost. And one can bemoan our two party system all one wants, but a cursory glance at parliamentary democracy in Italy, Israel, or France in the post-war era demonstrates that multipartism isn't exactly a panacea. Heck, the Italians are elated that their most recent election produced two coalitions; maybe this government will actually last more than 2 years.

    To jdryden's comments about the inherent unsuitability of such a large country for democracy, two points come to mind. First, that is basically what federalism is all about, and one of the reasons the US has such a decentralized government, with significant powers held by states and counties. Second, against what standard are you measuring this alleged unworkability of democracy in the US? If you ask me, mankind itself is somewhat unfit for representative democracy, but we make do as best we can. Your contention that democracy is more suited for smaller countries doesn't necessarily seem to be borne out by evidence. The US seems to have done relatively well in maintaining a democratic system all these years, when measured against other countries.

  • JKM, first of all, my vote wasn't going to be relevant to the presidential race. I think Congress is important, far more important than the president. In the general election, when the Democratic congressman has an opponent, I vote.

    As far as people dying for my rights, I sincerely doubt that anyone has ever died with this idiotic spectacle in mind. If someone died so that I could cast a vote that wouldn't matter in a contest among whoever could raise $200,000,000 in four months, then I think my non-voting is the least of the problems with that scenario. I understand your point, but the appeal-to-emotion argument is problematic. People have died for the democratic process. The fact that they have an election doesn't make this a democratic process. The USSR had elections every 4 years.

    Brandon, I'm not interested in personal appeal. I'm interested in candidates whose agendas appeal to me. If people like HRC or Kerry match up with your interests well enough, great. I think I am among a fairly large group of people who aren't real enthusiastic about Republican Lite.

  • I think your just upset the final number in your equation is so small. Just because you can't "feel" your vote having an effect doesn't mean it doesn't count. Have drink, and I'll read you in the morning.

  • "Asking people to make a choice between John Kerry and George Bush can’t help but suppress turnout, and that was nothing compared to what Clinton-McCain will do."

    I find this to be a dubious claim considering that basic Google research tells me that voter turnout in 2004 was the highest since 1968 (or very nearly so depending on which set of numbers you use), and turnout in this set of primaries has been setting records state after state. It seems pretty clear that turnout will be very high this fall regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination.

    Also, even if you do consider the Democrats in the race to be Republican Lite, isn't incremental progress far better than the alternative.

  • cam, what about the part where a chunk of Clinton supports refuse to vote for Obama (but don't want McCain), and a chunk of Obama supporers refuse to vote for Clinton (but don't want McCain)? I *could* see turnout going down for that reason. obviously I hope I"m wrong, because McCain scares the shit out of me, but still.

    Speaking of irrational voters, some of my students are 18 (or will be 18 in time for the election), and DAMN. Listening to them talk politics is HILARIOUS.

  • Yeah, people who support either Hillary or Obama but say they wouldn't vote for the other should shoot themselves in the face. I know they are out there and that they say these things, but I can see no reason aside from racism, sexism, or idiotic stubbornness for anyone who supports one one of them to not vote for the other, and instead to vote for McCain, either actively or by not voting at all.

    Also, hurry up and come over…I'm hungry.

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