Does Your Vote Really Count? Why the Act of Voting is Irrational

By Anne Pinckard

If the 2008 presidential election is any guide, the odds your vote will make a difference in the state of California are slim. Very slim. One in a billion, according to a study by Berkeley law and economics professor Aaron Edlin and his colleagues.

The researchers based their estimate on multiplying the probability that your state will be decisive in an electoral election times the probability that the election will be tied in that state. As a state grows more populous, it becomes more important in the electoral vote but less likely to have a tied election. But the more people who vote, the smaller the chances that your vote will make a difference. The national average, according to the study, is around 1 in 60 million.

Given those odds, Edlin says, most economists agree that the act of voting is irrational. Frustrated by that consensus, Edlin began to investigate the costs and benefits of voting to see if he could come up with a rational reason for why people vote. “I realized that as elections grow, of course the chances that you make a difference go down. But it’s also the case that what’s at stake goes up, because more and more people will be affected by the election.”

If a person votes for the public good, then it’s perfectly rational for them to vote, no matter how big the election, says Edlin. In a large election, you have the potential to make a big impact for a lot of people. For instance, the U.S. presidential election has a global effect. By electing a specific candidate, a voter can help bring about policies that provide social services, foreign policies, tax breaks, and other governmental benefits.

The rational model doesn’t hold for people who aren’t interested in the public good. “If you only care about yourself, you might as well stay home,” Edlin says. The rational model suggests that in large elections, the chance that your vote will count and the potential benefits you personally stand to gain are so small that it’s hardly worth the 15 minutes it may take to vote. The same holds true for landslide elections, where the outcome is clear, says Edlin.

All of this brings us back to California, a likely win for the Democratic presidential nominee and a state in which your vote only has about a one in a billion chance of being decisive. But, Edlin says, voters shouldn’t be discouraged because of the odds their vote will make a difference. Even if it’s small, the stakes may be large enough to make voting worthwhile. “You’d be awfully unhappy,” he says, “if your mother said that your vote would have made a difference and you hadn’t voted.”

From the Fall 2012 Politics Issue issue of California.
Filed under: Science + Health
Image source: AP Photo/Ric Francis
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For what it’s worth, my first presidential vote was most enthusiastically for Eisenhower while I was in the military, my latest vote was for Obama, two of the most important votes I have ever made. There is no doubt in my mind that my vote in 2012 shall be my most important vote yet. The military and Berkeley taught me to fight for American Democracy. Even though it is far from perfect, it is still the best government in history for We The People.. History has proven far too many times that we can never take Democracy for granted, it is always our responsibility to protect American Democracy from being overthrown. The choice is still ours, especially to respect the sacrifices and restore the legacy of The Greatest Generation that produced the best quality of life in history. The last thing you want to have to explain to your grandchildren is why you surrendered American Democracy to special interests by not voting, producing an unacceptable quality of life for them and all future generations.
Interesting choice of CALIFORNIA Classic update. Amazing how much our world has changed in just four years. Global warming controls our short-term future now, violence is overwhelming the entire human race, the majority party in the Congress of Hate over the last four years has negated the power of the presidency, and we have an oligarch running for president in a party that is on its knees before him. Solon would probably find this impending overthrow of American Democracy to be a worst case scenario lesson in history that we have totally failed to learn. And Socrates would probably wonder if his sacrifice was worth it now that our latest presidential primary has proven that Truth and Morality really are impossible dreams.
It stymies me that you don’t realize that governments aren’t ‘By the people, for the people’ any more but rather ‘Buy the people, FOR special interests’.
In what sense does the US enjoy the ‘best quality of life in history’? Consumption is not the only factor that determines the good life - in fact the reverse may well be the case.
In what sense does the US enjoy the ‘best quality of life in history’? Consumption is not the only factor that determines the good life - in fact the reverse may well be the case.
The ‘best quality of life in history’! This certainly cannot be said about an immature society - the USA - dedicated to consumption, imbued with self-importance and ignorant of the values of other cultures.
M8 this is an economics journal keep your anecdotes and appeals to emotion out.
So just say that its pointless for the people to vote because our vote really doesn’t matter.
Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than 1% of the total votes in those states, and Jill Stein captured a greater number of the popular vote in each of those three states than the number of votes that separated the respective tallies of President Trump and Hillary Clinton. All of which suggests to me that casting one’s vote is a highly rational exercise.

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