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.
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.