Why vote?

By the editor, Jun 17 2017 11:46AM

Another poll, another surprise result, more widespread disappointment, cynicism and uncertainty. Turnout actually increased at this election, suggesting that it might have generated a bit more interest than usual. But still: more than 3 out every 10 eligble voters didn't vote. Those who do vote generally disapprove of non-voting. But the non-voters might say, what's the point? Elections don't really change anything, politicians don't keep their promises, and anyway, my vote wouldn't make any difference.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too keen to dismiss these views. As has been pointed out before, the chances of an individual vote affecting the outcome of an election are so close to zero as makes no difference. This general election was in fact notable for the number of very close results, one of which was decided by only 2 votes. Notable, though, because so rare. And even if one person more, or one person less, had decided to vote in that North East Fife constituency, it wouldn't have affected the result (assuming the votes were counted correctly, of course). Contests where one vote might affect the result might happen once in a century. And even then - even in an election as close as this one - the fate of one constituency is extremely unlikely to affect who ends up in Government.

And so the theory goes - the rational person doesn't vote at all. It simply isn't worth even the relatively small expense of effort involved in going to the polling station, because there is absolutely no chance in real terms that it will make any difference at all.

But it is more complicated than that.  If no one voted at all, there would be anarchy or something similarly disastrous, and the individual non-voter would suffer along with everyone else.  For the “rational person”, it has been said, it is better that others vote, but that you as an individual don’t bother.  But then there is a risk that by not voting, others follow your example. Game theorists have had fun working through the permutations.  It has been suggested that the best outcome for the rational individual would be for others to believe she is voting, thus helping encouraging others to vote, but not actually to cast a vote herself. 


But there are difficulties even with that.  What if the person is asked a direct question?  And follow-up questions?  “Are you going to vote?” Yes. “How do you manage to fit that into your busy life?” Oh, I’ll drop in to the polling station before catching my train.  “I thought you usually caught the 6.58?” Yes, that’s true. I’ll have to get a later train that day.  “Oh, the 7.18?  I’ll see you on it then!”  Well, I might not manage to get that train, actually, it might be the one after.  “Oh, so you’ll see my wife, then, she gets the 7.40…”  And so on.  It’s quite possible that it would cost less effort to vote than it would concocting elaborate lies to cover one’s tracks in not voting.  And there is less social risk in actually voting than in pretending to vote and potentially being found out as a manipulative liar.


This does also beg the question who a “rational person” is in such circumstances.  It seems to be assumed in academic circles that a rational person is one who is entirely selfish.  This is a dubious assumption not only morally, but also linguistically and logically.  There seems no reason why a “rational” person shouldn’t follow a course of reasoning that benefits others instead of, or as well as, herself.  In any event, voting is an instance where the two interests – the individual’s, and the wider public’s – are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to disentangle them.  From one perspective, voting could be seen as entirely selfish: a cost-benefit analysis that on balance works in the individual’s favour, even if the actual effect of the individual vote is worthless.  From another perspective, voting is a civic duty and a partly altruistic act, which is rational because it is rational for everybody, rather than limited to the cost or benefit to the individual.  In reality, most people are likely to feel it’s something of a mixture, to the extent that they would feel inclined to a view at all.


And however you explain the motives of the rational voter, can “tactical voting” be defended as rational?  Given that an individual vote effectively never counts, is it not only unprincipled, but also pointless?  There is a case for arguing otherwise.  If the act of behaving as though you’re going to vote at all has a beneficial effect, because of its wider influence, then behaving as though you’re going to vote for a particular party may have an influencing effect as well.  (Of course, you could still actually vote for your real preferred candidate – like the Labour supporter who persuades others to vote Lib Dem to stop the Tories, and casts her own vote for the hopeless Labour candidate – is that more or less principled?)  In a particular constituency, this behaviour may help stop a particular party’s candidate from being elected.  However, it still seems most unlikely in practice that the average individual on her own would have sufficient influence to persuade hundreds or thousands of people to vote in a particular way so as to alter the result.  And there is a another potential downside too: a spreading of cynicism and distrust, whether within that constituency or more generally.  For example, if a party or its supporters became associated with promoting tactical voting, the party may lose support overall, from those who prefer to view voting as a more honest transaction.  So: tactical voting is only very rarely good tactics, and even then it may well be a poor strategy.


Whether taking a tactical approach or not, deciding whom to vote for can tax the most rational of individuals, selfish or otherwise, particularly given the choices on offer at the last election.  Some may be less inclined to make a choice on policies or even on individuals, and more inclined to send a message or make a gesture, along such lines as not wanting to be fooled, fobbed off, ignored, or taken for granted.  Given the uncertain basis for voting at all, it's easier to understand such reactions, even if they appear to go against an individual's or a country's best interests.  That effect may be magnified when a poll is foisted on a tired electorate by a prime minister who is determined only to bolster his or her authority, as has now happened twice in the space of a year.  On each occasion the prime minister concerned has been rebuffed by the voters.  No doubt on each occasion the prime minister has been surprised by the result, wondering why so many people have voted so apparently irrationally. 


The truth is we don’t fully understand our own motives for voting, let alone the motives of others, but emotions and instincts are likely to play as much of a role as reason.  It shouldn’t surprise us if the results are sometimes unexpected.

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