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September 29, 2004

Choosing Not to Choose: The Case for Not Voting

After every election there are those who mourn low voter turn-out. Further, they claim that any one who didn't vote was iresponsible and lacked patriotism. I disagree. Sometimes, it is your civic duty not to vote.

Economics tells us voting is irrational. It is virtually impossible that your vote will be decisive, so the expected gain is zero, while the costs in terms of time and effort are non-trivial. Fortunately, most people aren't economist, and--not realizing they're not supposed to vote--vote anyway. Good for them!

But alas, a subset of them shouldn't vote. If you are completely uninformed you should do the society a favor and stay as far away from the polling place as possible. This is one reason I never liked the idea that MTV helped get young people interested in voting. (If the only reason you know anything about the candidates is because you watch MTV, then maybe you should just stay home with your bong.) A fixed cost to voting is a good thing, I say. If voting entails a small fixed cost, then only people who give a damn will make the effort. Heaven help us if it ever becomes possible to vote while watching television. That's the day I move to Antarctica.

But what happens if you don't want to vote for any of the candidates, not because you feel apathetic but because the candidates do not engage you even though the issues do? In a two-party race, to vote for one candidate or the other is to reward that candidate's party. If you don't like the nomnee, you may not want to further the deterioration of your party by voting for him. Nader voters felt this way last time around. Didn't seem like a wise move. The problem was, most Nader folks, in their hearts, preferred Gore to Bush. So the cost of helping Bush should have outweighed the benefit of reforming their own party. I think they simply miscalculated. (Disclosure: I'm trying to inhabit the mind of a Nader voter in that last part, which is very hard to do.)

But if you do not prefer one candidate to the other, then witholding your vote (and urging others to do likewise) in order to reform one party or the other (or both) has an upside and no downside, and could well be your optimal strategy. Not voting could be the act of a civic-minded person. A form of participation in the democratic process.

[It could also be optimal for moderate or libertarian Republicans to vote for Kerry (to make Bush lose and thus push the Republcan party toward fiscal responsibiity and away from the religious right) and for Nader fans to vote for Bush (to make Kerry lose and force the next candidate to cater more to the green wing.) But let's not go there.]

As for myself, I'm leaning toward not voting (for the first time in many years.) I will not expound on my political views, as this is primarily an economics blog not a raving political blog. Moreover, this particular post is really about decision theory. My main point: The choice not to choose is every bit as participatory as is the choice to choose.

Am I alone? Or is a constituency out there that agrees with me?

(And if there is, what do we do for a bumper sticker?)

P.S.Babcock


September 29, 2004 | Permalink

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