Some Thoughts on Voting

A while ago I bought a Willie Nelson album because Willie is excellent. People who say “I don’t like country music” haven’t listened to Willie Nelson.

Willie would be the first pig-tailed president. We must elect him for social justice!

Even though I can get the album without paying for it, I paid because I want to tell Willie Nelson that I appreciate him. But my purchase was also a dollar vote (a five dollar vote, really) telling would-be musicians to be more like Willie Nelson.* For undertaking the expense of making that vote, I even got access to the album through Amazon. That’s good if I want to load it onto my phone for a road trip, but most of the time it’s actually easier for me to listen to that album on Grooveshark. In any case, I got to express myself, listen to Willie Nelson in a barely easier fashion under some circumstances, and it only cost my $4.99.

Now let’s do some lazy economics. My cost of expressing my preferences was approximately $5. If I’m rational we can infer that my benefit was at least as great. I got access to the album (that’s worth about 2 cents to me), I got to express my appreciation of Willie, and I got to make an infinitesimally small impact on the artistic landscape.

I think it’s fair to say that people who vote are doing so to express their views (as I did). But I think they usually vote for the wrong person. If I decide candidate Bob is less terrible than candidate Andy, that doesn’t mean I should vote Bob. I think candidate Carol actually reflects my views fairly well, and I’m sure she won’t win the election. But I also know that if either Andy or Bob wins, it will be by 300 or more votes**; so if I vote for Carol I won’t change the outcome and thus won’t be “wasting” my vote. In fact, if I vote for Bob I’m wasting my vote because I’m sending the message that we need less of the stuff Carol calls for and more of the stuff Bob does.

But in any case, we all pretty much understand that while your vote matters on average, it doesn’t matter on the margin. Put simply, the costs of voting are significantly higher than the benefits you would get if your vote magically actually did change the outcome multiplied by the probability that such a miracle occurs. So probably people vote to express themselves, and as long as their doing that, voting for the Republicans (Democrats) is like buying a popular album you hate because there’s another popular album you hate more. Don’t do that!

* Being more like Willie Nelson doesn’t mean impersonating Willie, it means being excellent.

** In an election with fewer than 5000 voters you might actually have a reasonable chance of affecting the outcome, but if you aren’t voting in a small town election you can safely assume that your vote won’t determine the winner.


13 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Voting

  1. 1) Not all voting systems are the same. If you dobt like as apect of the current (two party majority rules) system then push for a better system like range voting instead of not voting at all.

    2) How do you differentiate between votes that matter and votes that do not? They are all equal and count equally. There are no deciding votes and wasted votes unless you order them and there’s no way to know your vote’s order.

    • The first half of my post indirectly deals with your first point. There’s a way we “vote” for what the musical landscape looks like and I think it works fairly well even if it does produce Justin Beibers… at least it also produces Willie Nelsons. The way we vote for politicians is always going to be more difficult, but we’ve lumped a lot of decisions into that sort of vote; you’re not just voting for the Democrat or the Republican, you’re voting on a whole host of issues as you expect the candidate to take certain stands. Reducing the range of those issues would surely be an improvement, just as changes in voting rules would surely yield certain benefits.

      Because all votes count equally they all matter on average. When you through your support behind a candidate you are affecting the overall signal to policy makers: some portion of society wants set X of policies. But effectively nobodies vote matters on the margin in large elections: If *any* one person changes their vote during a presidential election it will not affect the outcome. Therefore the only wasted vote is the one placed for a candidate that voter didn’t actually prefer. If you’re worried about party Y winning the election and you prefer party X you waste your vote by voting for party Z because your vote is about sending information, not about actually deciding who wins. By sending false information you have (in a very small way) skewed the results in a way that will lead to less of the policies you like and more of the ones you dislike.

  2. Life is easier for me, I’m very opinionated. More often than not I’m faced with a choice between undesirable candidates and policies but I can usually decide the most repugnant and vote accordingly. The tough choices are the unopposed candidates; when I did my absentee ballot there were 1/2 dozen or so. Then I have to decide if they deserve a write-in vote to register my displeasure.

Please keep it civil

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