Over 132 million people voted in the 2008 US Presidential election. Why did they do that? Are they just plain stupid?
There is a nagging worry that voting is a bad bet, like buying lottery tickets. Even when the Powerball jackpot is huge, the expected utility of buying a ticket is negative—the ticket costs more than its expected payoff. Many economists and political scientists worry this holds true even more strongly for votes. Most models of the probability of being decisive indicate that your chances are vanishingly small. (Andrew Gelman famously disagrees, and thinks everyone who uses these models is innumerate, apparently.)
Some people say they vote to “change the mandate”, but that’s bogus, too. First, political scientists are pretty sure there’s no such thing as an electoral mandate. That is, winning by a large margin doesn’t improve your effectiveness or efficacy in office. (There’s even a question on the AP Government exam asking why political scientists are skeptical of mandates.) Second, there’s no reason to think one vote would affect this mythical mandate significantly, especially given diminishing marginal returns.
So, is voting just plain insane, according to rational choice theory? Nope. Rational choice theory says that an action is rational if it sufficiently satisfies your preferences, given the costs, and given your other options. Voting can satisfy all sorts of preferences, enough that the act of voting outweighs the costs (including opportunity costs).
Many of us have a strong desire to participate in group activities or to do things with other people. For instance, on October 7, 2009, over a million people worldwide read Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. They wanted to set a world record for the number of people who read the same book in its entirety on the same day. My partner, son, and I participated as well. For me, participation was not about getting a book read, setting a record, or making a pivotal difference. Rather, the point was to participate in a collective activity. It was to read the book with others all across the world. Trying to set a record gave us all a focal goal—we weren’t just reading together, but reading together at a certain level. Still, the point of reading The Hungry Caterpillar was to do it with others. It’s the same reason we like to “do the wave” at sports stadiums, or why we like to listen to music with others at a concert.
Also, many of us have a preference specifically for engaging in political activities or exercise our small degree of political power. Voting is one of many ways to satisfy the first preference, and for most of us, it is the only way to satisfy the second preference.
More importantly, as I argue in the Ethics of Voting, voting well is supererogatory. (That is, it’s a good thing, but it goes above and beyond the call of duty.) We all have a duty not to vote badly—and this means that most Americans have a duty not to vote. However, this means that abstention and voting well are both morally optional. Voting well is generally supererogatory. It is also one way to act benevolently (if you do it properly). By voting well, one participates in a group activity of attempting to provide good government to others. That’s a praiseworthy thing to do.
If you are a moral being, you will have preferences for doing moral actions, including a preference to at least sometimes do something supererogatory.
You might think it makes no sense to have such a preference, especially with regard to voting, given how little efficacy individual votes have. But, as David Gauthier, Greg Kavka, and David Schmidtz, among others, have already shown, it makes sense for a rational being to develop preferences or dispositions to participate in such activities. I won’t rehearse the argument here, since it’s well-worn.
So, if you have the potential to be a good voter, tomorrow is a excellent opportunity to do something that goes above and beyond the call of duty.