Is choosing to vote a rational decision?

I know many people do not vote. Some because they are too lazy. Some because they have no preferences. Other because they simply do not care. Is it, however, a rational decision to not exercise your right to vote because it is likely that a national election will never be decided by just a single vote?

I know that people vote for many reasons, a sense of civic duty being just one. I was, however, wondering about the rationality of choosing to vote in the hope of influencing anything.

This seems more like a debate question than a factual one. Sure, one vote usually doesn’t make a difference (though there are times when it actually has), but it’s not a “single vote” were talking about, but all the combined votes of the people who think their “single vote” won’t make a difference.

Factually, it depends on several criteria:

  1. The choice in meaning of “rational.” Do you mean rational in terms of maximizing financial economy, satisfying moral responsibility, or achieving social pragmatism?

  2. Voting county.

  3. Political views.

  4. Candidates.

Unless you can nail these down, it is Great Debate or IMHO.

As posed, I think it’s a GQ. And the answer is yes, it’s irrational to vote in a large number electorate if you do so to try to influence the outcome of the election. I’m sure I’ve done better in trying to explain it, but the search function’s squirrely and it’s about bedtime, so see the last post in: News Flash: We’re ALL throwing our votes away!

Oh dear I hope I have not posted in the wrong place :frowning:

I guess by rational I meant something along these lines: If I vote, and if the election is decided by my single vote I have got something of great value to me. I might be able to attribute a $ value to this. If I vote and my vote changes nothing, I get nada. Is my average return worth investing 1/2 an hour of my time in voting?

I am thinking of basically any election with two main candidates in a first past the post system.

Incidentally I always vote :slight_smile:

Thanks Hawthorne. That thread pretty much answers my question. My take from it is: an individual vote is almost certain to be irrelevant, but it is still a good idea to vote.

The last Presidential election was determined by less than 1000 votes. If that’s not an incentive for people to get up off their dead asses and go to the polls, I don’t know what is.

(And please don’t everybody cut loose with that tired crap about the election being decided by the Supreme Court. It wasn’t and we all know it. Willing to admit it is a totally different thing.)

I’ll try to keep this as GQ-worthy as I can, but it’s slippery.

IANASociologist, but when I have had discussions with people about voting, inevitably the most cited motivation is a sense of duty/pride/etc. That is, many people vote because it makes them feel good.

I am assuming that your definition of “rational” allows such non-monetary benefits to be included in a person’s utility calculation. Otherwise, one might have to claim that holding doors open and enjoying a tasty caramel after dinner are irrational behaviours.

This would not preclude irrational voting. Someone who hates voting and thinks he shouldn’t have to do it might decide to steam off to the polling booths to do what he can to make sure Candidate Smith loses even though it is expected to be a landslide. This voter may have been acting in a way that you would define as irrational.

If I ever had the opportunity to vote in a close race that I wished to influence, voting would not be at the top of my to-do list. Volunteering with the campaign, encouraging like-minded others to vote, etc., would all likely have more influence that my single vote.

Putting aside all politics and debates on the issue because this is a GQ, look at the 2000 Presidential election.

The total votes cast is 105,326,325. The number of votes separating the two main contenders is 539,947 votes. However, since the Electoral College is used to determine who is president, the actual vote swing between the two main contenders is only 930 votes (Florida). Source:

You do the math and see for yourself. In a country of almost 288 million people, with 105 million casting ballots (even though 205,815,000 were of voting age - source: ), the vote for president came down to 930 votes separating the top two vote-getters.

If one takes hawthorne’s premise and link at face value, sure your own vote makes no difference. The assumption is based on the belief one single voice doesn’t matter. One make look at history to see there are quite a few single voice that mattered.

However, combine enough doesn’t matter votes and you may very well change the entire election.

In many non-swing states, your vote simply doesn’t matter. However, a political contribution can still matter.

On this topic, here is a question I’ve always wondered about: What is the average dollar amount (in excess of the opposition) required to win an undecided vote? What is the average dollar amount to sway a decided vote? Obviously this is impossible to work out precisely with pencil and paper, but perhaps there is some general election strategy wisdom about the correspondence between dollars and votes?

In the first place you almost always vote for more than one candidate and/or issue and in the rare case that one ends up being decided by a single vote the others will most certainly not be that close. Even in that one instance that is decided by one vote how can you claim that one vote was your vote? If you say “Well I wasn’t going to vote, but decided to at the last minute”, there will be others with the same or as valid a claim as your’s to the winning vote. The fact is that you all participated in the vote and the outcome was very close but nobody has a claim to the winning vote. :wink:

The question of “one person making a difference” can be looked at in other questions such as “should I throw this beer can out the window?” or “should I conserve resources?” What difference does one beer can make or turning out the light when you leave a room? I believe the answer is obvious, but evidently some people have problems with such dilemmas.

If you’re talking about the presidential election, then you may be right. But an even smaller percentage of people vote in local elections, where the margins between victory and defear are substantially less and the amount of money directly at stake for each voter is larger. The town I live in has a population of about 50,000. Fewer than 2500 voted in the school board election last month, even though approval of the school budget determines our property taxes. There was also a $3 million capital project up for vote, and the differnce between it passing and not passing was 300 votes.

Folks who complain that they don’t have a voice in national politics don’t understand the power their vote can wield in their own communities.

Off to Great Debates.

DrMatrix - GQ Moderator

I always thought that reasoning was narrow-minded, selfish, and generally stupid. It is for people who can’t see beyond their immediate choices, or who view the world as it relates directly to them - it they can’t produce something themselves, then it isn’t worthwhile. Selfish and assheaded.

For what it is worth, I think hawthorne answered the original GQ question, to my satisfaction, with the answer “no”.

That is simplifying the way he phrased his answer.

He said that it is irrational if your goal is to have your one vote decide the outcome.

I think it is horribly irrational not to vote (and then, frequently complain about the outcome).

I said I thought there were better old threads on this than I could find yesterday. This is the one I was thinking of: Is voting for the president worth it? Lots of common themes with this thread, including it starting in GQ and me saying that it had a factual answer! Sad, really.

There’s a few things I would like to say in response to hawthorne’s analysis. First, that an individual vote is statistically insignificant is, well, not telling (to me) the whole story. First, if voting is irrational because of it, we come to the perplexing situation of a rule that serves as its own contradiction: as more and more people follow it, those who vote stand a greater and greater chance of directly affecting matters. That makes it a poor arbiter of rationality, IMO.

Someone will still get elected whether I vote or not, and likely they will win by a larger margin than one vote, hence it is not worth my time to vote. This, again, fails to be sufficiently universal–only a set number of people in any arbitrary election can apply this reasoning, after which, eventually, one vote will make a difference.

I think it is important to see that the failing of a universal criterion like that. A criterion like “vote your conscience” is sufficiently universal but, IMO, generally meaningless because we don’t vote on issues but people, so voting one’s conscience becomes a bit more difficult in practice than in theory. My opinion. I also have other personal issues with conscience voting, but that’s not for this post. But I would say that “One should vote as if it was their vote that decided the election, given what one knows of the election itself” is sufficiently contextual and universal. The question that remains is whether it is rational in other respects, but it is hard to say what one will consider rational.

So far, the alternative rational criterion offered in the thread, in my opinion, fails, since it only works so long as a specific set of people use it as a criterion. Since there is no way to know in advance whether enough people are voting to make it worth one’s while, and since there is no way of knowing in advance whether a particular election in a particular area is going to be split down the middle, there is no real way to know whether it can be applied or not. You have assurances that the odds are in favor of elections won by a larger margin than one vote–so long as there are people who don’t take such assurances.

I just find it a poor criterion.

FWIW, my opinion on whether or not “voting is worth it” have definitely changed since those threads have taken place, though I still believe in many of the things I said then.

If you and three of your buddies decide to take a fishing trip and y’all have a vote to decide on whether to fish on the lake or the bayou, well, heck, your one vote isn’t going to decide anything by itself. It’s almost always gonna be the way the other three vote that makes the final decision. So you might as well just not vote.

My belief is it is rational to vote, but only because it is important for the health of democracy, or “the common good” if you prefer. A bit like being concientious about recycling.

To vote in the hope of influencing anything, well I can’t certainly see why many consider that irrational. It might partly explain the voter turnout figures quoted by Duckster for the last US presidential election.

I wonder if there would be a good correlation between people who recycle and people who vote. You could present an argument that both actions have little personal reward but instead indicate the behaviour of a good citizen.