Contra “I Don’t Vote”

I often chillax with libertarians. In doing so I often hear people say that they don’t vote because their vote is worthless. Such a statement is not quite true.

People will then sometimes state that the probability of their vote swinging a presidential election is small, which is true, but this is misleading for at least three reasons:

  1. Expected benefit is the probability of success times the value of success, not just the probability.
  2. Presidential elections are arguably a dishonest metric as that is the case where a single vote is most diluted. Local elections, state elections, senate, congress, judges, and more also matter. Party primaries are a case where votes can really make a difference.
  3. Sometimes voting has benefits which occur even if the preferred candidate loses. Message voting, voting out of a feeling of civil duty, or voting out of social obligation perhaps because the candidate is family or a personal friend are all examples.

Let’s do a rough CBA of a Presidential:

  1. Voter turnout has been about 120M over the last few cycles. So the probability you swing a Presidential is about 1/120M.
  2. But what would the benefit be? There are 4 ways to measure this:
    1. Your personal benefit.
      1. This is your personal financial benefit plus your expected benefit to the economy multiplied by your empathy level.
      2. If you only care about yourself and not about the general economy, this value will be pretty small. If you care a great deal about making the country a better place and you a very empathetic this could be a large source of value.
      3. If you have some special interest business or something it could be a big deal here too.
    2. Your estimate of the comparative value of the candidates.
      1. If you value the election this way you will render the value small as candidate often both tend toward the middle to garner votes. So the difference will not be large.
    3. The market value of an election, determined by the election expenditure.
      1. Here is a good, market-based way to value an election. If you are the swing voter than the value of your vote is equal to the value of the whole election. The market valued the 2012 election at about $2B, and the value grows every cycle.
      2. This would make your vote worth about $17.
    4. Social value.
      1. This is where the game can really change. How much do you value human life? I would pay millions to save a life if I could afford it. Voting is your chance to show your value for these things.
      2. This article by itself should make the difference.
      3. Maybe you have a willingness to pay for something like preserving or altering marriage law or something else which is frequently ignored in a usual vote value CBA.
  3. Keep in mind that the above values should be multiplied over an infinite time horizon (until inflation renders them negligible) because of the value of precedent and the interest effect of those differences.
  4. If you live in a key state your vote is worth several times more than that.

In conclusion, if you have no social values or empathy then your vote is probably the equivalent of the net present value of a $17 investment. That is calculated as 1 divided by the discount rate, multiplied by 17, or about (1/.08)17, or about $212.5. Wikipedia on discount rate here and Investopedia here.

If you live in a key state such as a moderate or swing state like VA or CO, a newsmaking state like Iowa, or a large electoral college state like CA, TX, or FL, your vote could be worth much more. If you live in New York City you don’t matter. Clinton 2016 all the way for New York City.

If, on the other hand, you do have social values and empathy then your vote is immensely valuable.

Suppose you value a human life at $1M and you have an empathetic economic value of .001% such that every $1M you saved the economy provides you the same utility you would gain from having $1 of income. Let’s further say that whoever the candidate you prefer is would improve the economy by 1% each year for a 4 year term and would save 100,000 lives by a combined effort of improving healthcare and reducing military casualties.

US GDP is about $17.4T per year in 2014 dollars as of 2014 according to World Bank. Let’s make a conservative simplification and say the 1% each year thing has a net value of 17.4T * .04 = $696B. We won’t even grant the interest effect on that value, which would improve it big time.

You also value the human lives saved at $100B. Overall, your vote under such conditions would be worth about $800B, divided by 120M, your chance of being the median vote. This would make your vote worth about $6700.

$6700 for a couple hours of my time? That’s a great deal. Even the $200 would be a great deal for me.

Obviously the value of your vote depends greatly on a variety of factors. While it is uncontroversial to say that your vote has a low probability of tipping a Presidential election, think twice before concluding that low probability equals worthless.


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