Voting as a Rational Act

Economists who have studied voting psychology have concluded that the act of voting is irrational.

It’s a cost-benefit analysis: The amount of time, effort and lost productivity entailed in voting simply does not seem justified by the outcome. Elections are rarely decided by a single vote. In fact, most are not even close. A study of 56,000 congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898 in the U.S. found that only seven were decided by a single vote, and two others tied. The median margin of victory in the congressional elections was 22 percent.

So, the argument goes, your vote doesn’t really matter. Or as economist Patricia Funk (Barcelona School of Economics) wrote in a recent paper, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”

Well, economists have been wrong about a lot of things, starting with the area they are most expert in, economics. This “rational” approach to voting overlooks several good reasons to vote, and leads one to wonder about the rationality of the economists.

To begin with, it must be said that if everybody who considers himself to be a rational person abstained from voting, that would leave the electoral choices to (at least in their minds) the least rational. The nation’s leaders would be chosen by people acting solely out of a sense of “civic duty,” or some mystic connection with the democratic tradition, or a sense of competition with other countries where voting is more popular (there are at least 30 of them, according to the Pew Research Center) or just plain old habit. From the point of view of the rational non-voter, then, staying home on Election Day would be irresponsible. Maybe even irrational.

But the reason that public officials and citizens’ organizations worry so much about low voter turnout in the U.S. is not because they fear that the irrationals will take over. Rather, it’s because the less people participate in the electoral process, the more disaffected they become; the less trust there is in government, the greater the chances of social breakdown and disorder.

In other words, voting for a candidate, of whichever party, is a vote of confidence in democracy. It is a tangible way of saying, “This is a good system, and I am part of it,” even if your vote doesn’t swing the election, or the only reason you chose a particular candidate was because in your view, he or she is the lesser evil.

There is a strong, pragmatic reason for voting, too, which has often been mentioned, but is worth repeating: Politicians go where the votes are. They locate the voters by examining the electoral returns by district of past elections, where the numbers of ballots cast tell the tale of the level of participation in every polling area.

When it comes to deciding where to spend money for such mundane things as street lighting and garbage pickup, or which neighborhood gets additional police to keep the streets safe, those same politicians, now your elected officials, will also remember where the votes came from that put them in office. This may not seem fair; every citizen should have an equal right to government services. But this is the reality of politics. If you want to be listened to, you have to speak up — on Election Day, first and foremost.

Anyone who thinks that it doesn’t matter who gets elected should consider the huge amounts of money spent in these campaigns — over $2 billion by the two major party presidential nominees combined as of October 19, The Washington Post reported. That’s not counting the hundreds of millions that went into other presidential, senatorial, congressional, gubernatorial and local campaigns.

These folks may be many things, but they are not stupid. They invest such fantastic amounts of money, time and energy in these campaigns because they know it’s worth it. Getting elected is not just an ego trip; it’s about power. At the highest levels, it’s even power over life and death, to send troops into war; power to make deals with other countries; power to appoint justices to the Supreme Court; power to change the health care system, and much more.

As the campaign comes down to its last day, they are working at a frenzied pace to reach every possible voter. That, too, would seem to contradict the economists’ calculations. Why should politicians chase after every voter, to the extent of sending cars to the homes of the elderly and housebound who can’t get to the polls on their own? How can the vote of a little old lady off in the boondocks possibly make a difference?

Maybe it’s because they know something the economists don’t know. Maybe close elections aren’t as rare as they think. It happened in 2000, it could happen in 2016.

The politicians know the value of every single vote. So should we.