To Vote or Not to Vote?
By David Henderson
One of my favorite writers and thinkers on the Cato blog, Cato at Liberty, is Jim Harper. He posted yesterday on voting, titling his piece “Don’t Not Vote.” He makes some good points but goes too far. The issue for me, by the way, is not that I disagree with his bottom line: I vote pretty regularly. But reasons matter.
First, I like how he starts, writing:
A fair number of libertarians pride themselves on not voting. Among their reasons: One person’s vote is so unlikely to influence the outcome of an election that almost any alternative action is a better use of time. That reasoning has appealing simplicity. For consistency’s sake, our hyper-rational non-voting friends should refrain from applauding at performances or cheering at games.
Where I thought he was going to go is to say that voting is a means of expression, so why cut yourself off from that means.
But the ending sentence in that paragraph is this:
People who want to see liberty advance, and not just bask in the superiority of libertarian ideas, should probably vote–and vote loudly.
That’s what doesn’t follow. It still is the case that your vote has an almost infinitesimal chance of influencing the outcome.
Ah, says Harper, but so what if your vote doesn’t determine the winner? It influences the margin of victory. He writes:
Here’s one use of vote information that I’m familiar with as a former Hill staffer: Folks in Congress assess each other’s strength and weakness according to electoral margin of victory. When a one- or two-term member of Congress is re-elected by a wide margin, it’s a signal that he or she is there to stay. That member is going to have a vote for a long time and will acquire more power with increasing seniority. The stock of that person and his or her staff rises, and they immediately have more capacity to move their agenda.
OK, but let’s not lose our numeracy.
A personal story. Because I left Canada in 1972 just before an election, I never voted in Canada. And I couldn’t vote in the United States until June 1986, after I had just become an American citizen. I voted the first chance I got. What a disappointment! Everything I told my students in class about the economics of voting was true. It’s not just that I didn’t influence the outcome. It’s also that I didn’t noticeably influence the margin of victory either.
If you find yourself persuaded by Jim’s point about margin of victory, ask yourself this: Think of a candidate, candidate A, whose views you liked a lot more than those of his opponent, candidate B. To make it real think about an actual candidate A whom you voted for. Now ask yourself, without checking data, by what number of votes did he/she win?
I bet the best you can do is guess to the nearest hundred and, for most people, it’s the nearest thousand.