Would You Give Up Your Right to Vote for a Pay Raise?

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Over a third of Americans would for an immediate 10% annual raise, according to a new survey. Here are the results in full:

    • 40.06% would give up dental care for the next five years
    • 12.2% would break up with their partner or significant other
    • 53.55% would give up all social media accounts for the next five years
    • 88.61% would give up watching Game of Thrones for life
    • 43.86% would give up exercise for the next five years
    • 34.98% would give up the right to vote in all elections for life
    • 9.13% would give up their child’s or future child’s right to vote in all elections for life
    • 73.42% would give up all alcoholic beverages for the next five years
    • 17.93% would give up Social Security benefits for the next two years
    • ​18.9% would give up access to health insurance for the next five years
    • 50.65% would give up watching movies for the next three years
    • 55.9% would work an extra 10 hours per week for life
    • 15.27% would give up all of their vacation days for the next five years
    • 47.74% would give up all caffeinated products for the next two years
    • 50.4% would work one day every weekend for the next year
  • 5.33% would eat a single tide pod

Why would people give up this right? Because they have every incentive to do so. As explained by Jason Brennan,

There is some debate among economists and political scientists over the precise way to calculate the probability that a vote will be decisive. Nevertheless, they generally agree that the probability that the modal individual voter in a typical election will break a tie is small, so small that the expected benefit (i.e., p[V(D)V(R)]p[V(D)−V(R)]) of the modal vote for a good candidate is worth far less than a millionth of a penny (G. Brennan and Lomasky 1993: 56–7, 119). The most optimistic estimate in the literature claims that in a presidential election, an American voter could have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if that voter lives in one of three or four “swing states,” and only if she votes for a major-party candidate (Edlin, Gelman, and Kaplan 2007).1 Thus, on both of these popular models, for most voters in most elections, voting for the purpose of trying to change the outcome is irrational. The expected costs exceed the expected benefits by many orders of magnitude.

Consider the following costs:

[S]uppose my favored candidate (who is worth $33 billion more to the common good) enjoys a slight lead in the polls. She has a very small anticipated proportional majority. The probability that any random voter will vote for her is 50.5 percent. This is an election we would describe as “too close to call.” Suppose also that the number of voters will be the same as in the 2004 U.S. presidential election: 122,293,332. I vote for my favored candidate. In this case, the expected value (for the common good) of my vote for the better candidate is $4.77 x 10^-2650 , that is, approximately zero. Even if the candidate were worth $33 billion to me personally, the expected value for me of my vote would be, again, a mere $4.77 x 10^-2650 . That is 2,648 orders of magnitude less than a penny. In comparison, the nucleus of an atom, in meters, is about 15 orders of magnitude shorter than I am. In meters, I am about 26 orders of magnitude shorter than the diameter of the visible universe. In pounds, I am about 28 orders of magnitude less heavy than the sun. Even if the value of my favored candidate to me were dramatically higher, say ten thousand million trillion dollars, the expected value of my vote in our example—for a close election—remains thousands of orders of magnitude below a penny. For an election in which the candidate has a sizable lead, the expected utility of an individual vote for a good candidate drops to almost zero.

The Beneficence Argument appeals to the public utility of individual acts of voting. However, suppose all you care about is maximizing your contribution to the common good. If so, voting would not merely fail to be worthwhile— it would be counterproductive. It turns out that the expected disutility of driving to the polling station (in terms of the harm a driver might cause to others) is higher than the expected utility of a good vote. This is not hyperbole.

Aaron Edlin and Pinar Karaca-Mandic have estimated the expected accident externalities per driver per year in the United States—that is, the amount of damage the average driver imposes on others from accidents and reckless driving. The expected accident externalities range from as little as $10 in low-traffic-density North Dakota to more than $1,725 in high-traffic-density California. Suppose a North Dakotan takes five minutes to drive to the polling station. The average expected accident externality of a five-minute drive in North Dakota is $9.5 x 10^-5 , much larger than the expected benefit of a good vote in the previous example. So the voter imposes greater expected harm on her way to the polls than she could compensate for by a good vote.2

Can’t say I blame people.