the voting paradox: solved!
I’ll compose a response to the orgheads later, but today’s post is inspired by Andrew Perrin, who mocked us over at Scatterplot. The issue of the voting paradox came up: rational choice theory predicts no one would vote because most of the time voting doesn’t change the outcome. I expressed my dismay at the issue since I think it’s a lame “paradox.” Andrew responded that it was something that had confused decades of researchers.
Well, I’ve thought it through and just because generations of scientists work on a topic doesn’t mean it’s not lame. To see why, let’s work through this carefully. Let’s state the basic research question: why do people vote rather than stay home? The rational choice approach suggests that you should look at the costs and benefits. In an overwhelming number of elections, one vote has nearly no chance of determining the outcome. So the benefit is zero. End of story, right? Not so fast. Unfortunately, a lot of folks skip the next part: the cost of voting. Voting takes about 15 minutes, once every year or so. Mathematically, the voting cost is bigger than the benefit. But for practical purposes, vote cost = vote benefit = 0.
What does basic econ say when costs and benefits are both zero? Answer: not much. When costs and benefits are zero, any behavior is consistent with the model. That’s why there’s no “paradox” at all. There’s no constraint on voting, so cost-benefit analysis is almost useless.
Now, this doesn’t mean the rational choice approach is without merit. In nations that impose fines for non-voting, voting turnout is very high. That’s enough proof, for me at least, that if you add costs, people respond.
How should we analyze free voting (i.e., no constraints through fines, fees, etc.)? Turns out that we have enough evidence for a good rough theory. First, there’s always a chunk of people who vote and they have predictable characteristics. They are more high status, have more education, more cognitive ability, etc. They also tend to be civically engaged. Voting correlates with a lot of other associational life (e.g., clubs) and early life club participation predicts voting. Basically, for whatever reason, there’s a slice of the population that are the joiners and participators. Call them the reseve army of voters. Maybe, from the perspective of evolution, it’s useful to have people around who care about social things.
Second, it seems that the symbolic importance of issues and elections predicts participation on the margin. People are more likely to vote in national elections, they are more likely to vote if there’s an issue that appeals to their identies or interests, etc. Some voters are also likely to vote through political recruitment.
Andrew cited some very clever experiments that explore pivotal (close) elections. While I admire the effort, I find it beside the point. Pivotal elections are infrequent in the real world. We only care about them because of faulty reasoning about voting. What matters is psychology of voting, whether it be basic disposition, symbolism, or networks. Thankfully, there’s a lot of good work on these issues and it’ll yield a lot more useful stuff than the n+1 study of weird voting situations.