[This is an old blogpost, slightly modified and reposted on the occasion of the Presidential election in the U.S. tomorrow.]
The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.
Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome – at least most of the time – and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless and futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.
It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the immediate benefits (if any).
There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. (It’s a variation on the Kantian categorical imperative: it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on). Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.
Similarly, when a certain number of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.
A better way to express this idea:
The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.
So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.
Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)
So, drag yourself outside tomorrow, if necessary, and do your duty, which is a duty both to your community and to yourself.