Sunday, 11 November 2012

Why You Probably Shouldn't Have Bothered Voting

As much as I’m glad to see Barak Obama victorious in the Presidential Election, I’m reminded again of something that seems on the surface to be contentious, but is in actuality evidently true.  Despite all the excitement and impassioned campaigning at the collective level, every single person’s vote is irrelevant to the outcome at the individual level.  In other words, the paradox is this; all the votes for Barak Obama saw him victorious at an aggregate level, but each one of those votes at an individual level didn’t affect the outcome one bit. 

To see this, let’s take the closest election known to man.  The closest official margin in American history was two elections ago when it all hinged on Florida, and George Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes.  So consider what needs to happen for your single vote to make the difference – firstly, you need the voting to be hinged on one single State, and it needs to be the one that you happen to be in.  Then you need the election in your State to be absolutely neck and neck, with your one vote being the deciding vote.  The odds of that happening are close to zero – but let’s suppose that instead of partisan votes we improve the odds of it being 50/50 by having coin tosses instead of votes.  Florida has around 6 million voters (let’s say 6 million for simplicity’s sake), which means you’d require exactly half of those coin tosses to land heads and half to land tails. The odds of that happening are just over 3000 to 1*.  Note that 3000 to 1 is the ‘most’ generous to you based on a 50-50 likelihood that every individual votes for either Obama or Romney – in real terms the odds would be astronomically greater than 3000 to 1**.

The probability of your vote making any difference in the outcome is so narrow that you might like to consider doing something better with your time (it’s the same kind of reasoning used to tell you that you shouldn’t buy insurance on your electrical goods, but with even greater probability in your favour this time).  The argument that “If everyone thought that way, the voting system would be a debacle” is a meaningless argument.  The fact is, almost everybody doesn’t think that way, and they never will.  But that doesn’t mean you have to think as they do – in fact, to realise voting is a waste of time means you shouldn’t bother – unless you have a psychological inclination to do so. 

Yet despite all that, I can understand why Americans vote for a President.  It may not be rational (after all, there are not many cases in which you would do something that you knew in advance would have no effect at all) but I can conceive of a situation whereby the satisfaction of voting for Obama or Romney outweighs the costs. 

I cannot say the same for the situation in Britain though, where the voting is far less tangibly rewarding, where candidates are tied to constituencies, and where the outcome of the vote makes even less difference than it does in the USA.  Moreover, you have to factor in that even if your vote made a difference in one constituency in the UK elections, the odds that that difference would have any tangible effect on your life are significantly more minuscule again.  Some do have psychological inclination, because they feel good voting for a candidate or party they support, so it can be contended that in some cases the time spent voting is worth the price for feeling good about voting.  But in most cases it is a waste of your time – particularly given that even if by the narrowest of chances your vote does happen to be the one that swung the result, the odds of your candidate actually going on to make any difference in the areas of concern that most affect you are virtually nil. 

Time is a more precious commodity than one vote, just as money spent on feeding the homeless or a new ironing board or a lunch meeting with a friend is more precious than insurance surcharges on products.  If it takes 30 minutes to cast a vote, you’d be better off spending that time doing some shopping for an elderly neighbour, or picking up some litter, or scrubbing off some graffiti, or writing that letter to the friend or relative you kept meaning to.  Then you will have done more good for the country than casting a meaningless vote.

If you’re the sort of person for whom voting gives you a greater satisfaction than the time and energy consumed, then carry right on voting.  But if you’re one of those who feels your vote is of some value to the outcome, or that you really ought to make the effort due to some compulsion, then congratulations, you can relieve yourself of the duty and spend the time and energy doing something else, safe in the knowledge that your vote very likely won’t matter, and that almost nobody else is going to think like you on this one.

* The exact odds are 3100 to 1, which is 6,000,000 coin-flippers, each choosing Barak Obama with some probability p and Mitt Romney with probability 1-p, where p is 1/2 and 1-p is also ½.

** For example, if p drops to .51 because of one small bias, the chance of a 50/50 tie drops to 1 in 10 to the power of 1046 (that’s 1 with 1046 zeros).