Opinion: Does Every Vote Matter? Economists Say No

Voting is regarded as an American citizen’s civic duty. Consequently, those who vote are praised to the utmost degree while those who do not are considered a disgrace to their country. A great source of sorrow for many a political scientist is America’s low voter turnout, especially when compared to the turnout in other developed countries. Voter turnout is substantially lower among youth voters, with only 20 percent of eligible youth voters voting in midterm elections. Universities have responded accordingly during election season, installing clipboard wielding volunteers around campus to urge students to register to vote and direct them to the nearest voting station on Election Day. The fact that students need to be peer pressured, begged, and hand-held through the voting process to even consider voting proves that voting is not a priority among the college student population. While many may consider such apathy a great evil, college students are merely behaving rationally like economists.

For a purely rational individual who makes decisions to maximize their own well-being, voting does not make sense. From a logistical standpoint, voting is a use of people’s limited time and resources that is just not worth it on an individual basis. According to economic research, the benefits of voting are not worth the effort it takes to register to vote, fully inform oneself on all the candidates and propositions, and go to a voting station since a single vote will almost never affect an election’s outcome. In fact, in their paper, “The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote,” economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter analyzed election data from 1898 to 1989 and found it to be extremely rare for an election’s outcome to be decided by a single vote. Furthermore, elections that are extremely close are more likely to be subject to a recount or to be decided by the courts. Therefore, it makes sense that Americans are not going out in droves to vote each time election season comes around.

The widespread failure to vote is a case of negative externalities, which are economic costs inflicted on society due to a consumer’s private decision. Economists R.D. Tollison and T.D. Willet found that individuals may very well benefit in the short run from not voting, but their behavior will indirectly harm society in the long run. Political scientists have come up with many ways to increase voter turnout, including making election days a national holiday and making voting more flexible by allowing it to take place over several days or a week. Currently, however, there are not sufficient incentives for most Americans to vote. Yet, if there were truly no incentives to vote, the voter turnout rate would be far lower than it is today. Several studies have found that a major motive for those Americans who do choose to vote is being able to boast about doing so. Thus, people can and should vote either if they are altruistic individuals who are concerned about the welfare of society as a whole or if they are self-interested individuals whose reputations may benefit from the act of voting. For everyone else, voting is illogical and a waste of their personal time and energy.

American politics extols the virtues of those who vote but fails to see that it is completely reasonable for people not to vote given the current way the election process is set up. If you voted in the most recent midterm elections, you may have provided a service to your country, but did so at a disservice to yourself because that is the way the incentives are set up. Although it may be at the expense of the greater good, to all the selfish people of the world, the best advice is don’t vote.