The interesting question on turnout is not why so few of us vote, but why so manyby Jim Holt / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Image: secretlondon123 via flickr
Why does voting in a US presidential election feel at the same time both terribly important and utterly pointless? On the one hand, casting a ballot on election day strikes us as a kind of civic obligation; neglecting to do so is not so serious as neglecting to file a tax return, but it is still something you feel guilty about. On the other hand, nearly half of those Americans who are eligible to vote don’t bother. And, in a sense, they are right.
Some non-voters, no doubt, couldn’t care which candidate wins (the ancient Greeks had a word for a person who is indifferent to public affairs in this way: idiotes, or idiot). Others may be passionately interested in who wins, but suspect that their own ballot is immaterial to the outcome.
What is the chance, after all, that a single vote will swing an election? That is a tricky question, depending as it does on how close the race is. Still, ball-park estimates have been proposed. The simplest of them is just 1 divided by the total number of voters – the chance that a given voter will cast the last necessary vote for the winner. Since there are 100m voters or so in US presidential elections these days, the probability that any one of them will decide the outcome is of the order of .00000001.
If that is the infinitesimal impact you can expect to have, is it rational to take the trouble to cast a ballot? Perhaps not. Suppose you are one of the proverbial voters who “vote their pocketbooks.” Let’s say that the benefit to you personally if candidate A beats candidate B would be $1m (because of tax cuts, not having your job outsourced, and so on). If you multiply this benefit by the probability that you could affect the election (.00000001) you end up with… one lousy cent. But wait – voting also has costs, both in time (getting to the polling place, waiting in line) and money (I had to use two 37-cent stamps last week to send m…