Some unpleasant voting math

Published 11:11 pm Friday, October 28, 2016

Election Day is our opportunity to possibly tell our elected representatives, “You’re Fired!”  Election season brings lots of get out the vote messages, but I will consider some economics of voting.  Let me warn you in advance: people often find this economics lesson upsetting, probably because it challenges the conventional wisdom about democracy.

The economic perspective considers an individual voter’s benefits and costs.  Consider someone who believes that the outcome of the Presidential election will significantly affect the economy.  Imagine that their favored candidate will cut Federal taxes, resulting in extra money to spend.  Further, cutting taxes and regulation will boost economic growth, increasing pre-tax income.  If we add the value of important Presidential decisions like nominations to the Supreme Court and foreign diplomacy, let’s say that the outcome of the election matters by $25,000 over the next four years.

The cost includes the time to drive to the polling place, waiting in line, reading the ballot, and casting a vote, plus gas to drive to the polls.  Voting will likely take at least 30 minutes, more if the line is long.  Between the time and the gas, let’s say that the cost is $10. 

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Voting appears to be a good deal, since the value of the outcome ($25,000) far exceeds the cost ($10).  Except that the favored candidate may not win even if the person votes, and could win if she doesn’t vote.  The election outcome is not tied to the cost.  How do we evaluate voting now?

Economists would weigh the benefit by the probability that a person’s vote changes the election outcome.  Here arises the problem.  The probability of casting a decisive vote in a U.S. Presidential election is really small.  How small?  The probability is likely smaller than the chance of getting in an accident driving to the polls.  The frequency of tie elections provides evidence on the likelihood of a casting a decisive vote, and very few elections end in ties.  When you multiply $25,000 by this really small number, the result might well be less than a penny.

The economic perspective clearly recommends staying home on Election Day.  Yet over 100 million Americans will vote, so people must not be deciding to vote exclusively in terms of personal costs and benefits.  Many Americans feel a duty to vote, and so the guilt of not voting may outweigh the cost.  People might also vote to express their values.

Do these other motives render the economics irrelevant?  I don’t think so, because the above reasoning also applies to voters’ incentive to become informed about issues and candidates.  Better information reduces the chance of voting for a candidate who does not support your positions, but the low probability of casting a decisive vote means that a mistake likely doesn’t matter.  Voters’ incentive here has been termed rational ignorance, to emphasize how not becoming informed makes some sense.

A sense of duty or the value of self-expression might get Americans out to vote.  But many of these votes will be ill-informed, and the problem of poorly informed voters is not going away easily.

The economics of voting is part of Public Choice economics, which has been called “politics without romance.”  Public Choice challenges the view of democracy offered in high school civics class, but ultimately just tries to describe the world as it actually operates.  Whether we like this or want to change our democracy as a result are separate questions. 

For instance, we might conclude that rational ignorance explains why campaign ads succeed in manipulating poorly informed voters, thus providing a rationale for campaign finance reform.  Or perhaps the Americans who follow politics closely and cast votes in line with their values make elections work well despite some ill-informed voters.

The economics of voting, I think, definitely dispels the idea that simply voting somehow automatically and magically produces good outcomes.  Elections have been a tremendous innovation in human history, but voting has limits.  We must study the electoral process carefully to ensure that we do not ask elections to do more for us than they can realistically deliver.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University. 

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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