Why we vote


It’s difficult to understand why people vote, let alone why they vote the way they vote. No individual can reasonably expect her vote to determine or even influence the outcome of an election. In America, the chance of a one-vote victory margin that would determine the 2008 presidential election was about 1 in 10 million in some swing states, and 1 in a billion in places like California or Texas.

As Sam Dumitriu notes, this might still make voting worthwhile if you’re an altruist and you expect one candidate to make the world better than the other by more than a few billion dollars. But most people don’t think like this, and that has led some people to assume that voting is “expressive” – people do it to signal their allegiance to a particular tribe or team, not because they think the party they are voting for is best for themselves or the country.

Truthfully telling people you have voted certainly does seem to be a reason for voting, although the study the Freakonomics guys cite is from Switzerland, where I’ve heard they’re much more concerned with neighbourliness and civic duty than, thankfully, we are in England.

But does expressive voting determine how we vote? If it tells us anything it must mean that people are supporting parties or policies that, on some level, they believe to be counterproductive. Certainly if many (or any) people who are planning to vote Labour secretly believe that the Tories are actually best for the country, this would be a mark in favour of the expressive view of things.

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues that this is unlikely – people rarely feel good about voting for policies or parties that they think are bad. Group loyalty may well be a factor in determining how people decide what’s good to vote for, but surely it rarely trumps what people think is good.

In fact, barely half of each party's voters during the current UK election say they're proud to vote for their party. That obviously includes 'expressive' voters and people who like their party because they think it's the best one on its non-identidy merits.

Another problem with this view is that it also assumes that people realise that their votes don’t matter, but when polled people vastly overestimate the power of a single vote – the median American estimates that “there is a 1 in 1000 chance that their vote could change the outcome of a Presidential election” – the reality is between one in 10 million and one in a billion, remember. Yougov finds that “the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote.” (I’m guessing this is because you’re more highly educated.)

That supports the idea that people vote for reasons of civic duty primarily, and for some people because they think their vote will affect the outcome of the election. For many people, no doubt, it’s both.

All of this may help us to understand why people vote the way they vote: is it mostly self-interestedly, as many public choice economist believe, or altruistically, as most political scientists believe? I will try to answer that in my next post.