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Let us take the example of voting in a U.S. presidential election. If one lives in a blue state for which the outcome of the vote is known to always favor the Democratic candidate, is there any reason that would prompt one to vote Republican, or vice versa?

I have always heard the argument that for Republicans in, say California or Massachusetts, it is essentially pointless to bother voting at all. The same would apply to Democrats in Texas or Oklahoma. Is there a counter-argument to this claim?

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I'm from the 70s. Why would I vote republican in a democratic stronghold like texas? and why would I vote democrat in a republican stronghold like california? –  Sam I am Feb 3 at 20:05
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Dont worry you get to vote at least 2x in Chicago in every election anyway :) –  Chad Feb 3 at 20:59
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Doesn't exactly the same argument apply to voting for the predominant party? Your guy is going to win anyway. –  DJClayworth Feb 3 at 23:28
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Good question. I live in NJ and I never voted because I knew a red vote wouldn't matter here anyway. –  Shahar Feb 3 at 23:43
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@Shahar, vote libertarian. 5% of the vote means better ballot/debate access. –  user1873 Feb 4 at 0:48

3 Answers 3

Forget states that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. Even in a state that's extremely closely matched in terms of political opinion, your vote still has a vanishingly small chance of making a difference. First of all you have to consider the probability that your state will make a difference as to who wins the electoral college, which would only happen if the electoral vote totals are very close, and then you have to multiply that by the probability that your single vote can make the difference in who wins your state, which would only happen if there's an exact tie. See this paper for the results of such a calculation.

The bottom line is that it's an extremely small probability, which depending on your state could be as low as one in a hundred billion, and even the state where a person has the highest probability, the probability of your vote making a difference would only be one in ten million. As a point of comparison, the average person is only willing to pay a dollar to avoid a one in ten million chance of death, so assuming you value your survival over the outcome of the Presidential election, the von Neumann-Morgenstern rationality axioms state that it's irrational to vote if it costs more than a dollar to do so (for instance in terms of gas costs and the cost of your time).

There has in fact been a persistent puzzle among economists, especially the variety that believe that all human behavior is rational, concerning why it is that people vote in such large numbers when their vote almost never make a difference, not only at the Presidential level, but even at the level of local elections. One theory is that people are simply behaving irrationally, for instance because they overestimate the probability that their vote will matter.

Another theory is that people do it not merely because of the chance of changing the outcome of an election, but because it's an act of civic duty, although economist Steve Landsburg, in his popular book "The Armchair Economist", counters "But that ignores the fact that voting takes time away from other more productive acts of civic duty. You can spend 15 minutes casting an essentially meaningless vote, or you can spend the same 15 minutes returning shopping carts from the parking lot to the front of the grocery store. In the second case, you'll have actually made the world a better place."

Yet another theory (articulated in the paper I linked to) is that the outcome of an election, especially for President, matters quite a lot to people because it affects the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, so the low probability is made up for by the high reward. That raises the question, though, of why most people aren't more politically active in a lot of other ways.

To my mind, perhaps the most plausible explanation is that people vote out of a Kantian ethic. In simple terms, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative states that you shouldn't do an action unless it would be good if everyone did it. So the argument against not voting would be that if everyone listened to the advice of economists and stayed home, then a given person's vote would actually make a difference, so for that reason you should vote. Economists tend to be skeptical of that kind of reasoning, because they're generally utilitarians in their ethics, not Kantians. (Landsburg, for instance, says that it's "as true and as irrelevant as the assertion that if voting booths were spaceships, voters could travel to the moon. Everyone else does not stay home. The only choice that an individual voter faces is whether or not to vote, given that tens of millions of others are voting.") But I think the average person is more sympathetic to Kantian reasoning.

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Since you theoretically only vote once, does it make more sense to just convince others (who would vote against you) not to vote? (Thereby making your vote worth more?) –  user1873 Feb 5 at 3:32
    
@user1873 I'm not sure what your point is. –  Keshav Srinivasan Feb 5 at 3:37

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (1835):

“Princes had, so to speak, turned violence into a physical thing but our democratic republics have made it into something as intellectual as the human will it intends to restrict. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, in order to attack the spirit, crudely struck the body and the spirit escaped free of its blows, rising gloriously above it. But in democratic republics, tyranny does not behave in that manner; it leaves the body alone and goes straight to the spirit. No longer does the master say: “You will think as I do or you will die”; he says: “You are free not to think like me, your life, your property, everything will be untouched but from today you are a pariah among us. You will retain your civic privileges but they will be useless to you, for if you seek the votes of your fellow citizen, they will not grant you them and if you simply seek their esteem, they will pretend to refuse you that too. You will retain your place amongst men but you will lose the rights of mankind. When you approach your fellows, they will shun you like an impure creature; and those who believe in your innocence will be the very people to abandon you lest they be shunned in their turn. Go in peace; I grant you your life but it is a life worse than death.”

For those in the minority, voting is act of defiance against the cruelest tyrant of all — the tyranny of the majority. Absent the absolute monarch who can imprison him, the man in a democracy has only the vicissitudes of the majority against which to rail. The vote against the majority can soothe the soul as the only form of protest which he has left.

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If only soothing the soul was enough to make one feel counted. In our system of "representative democracy" we are essentially a non-factor and the votes practically mean nothing. I always feel they should just remove the word democracy and just call it what it is, an Oligarchy :) –  GµårÐïåñ Feb 3 at 20:37

The other answers omit the obvious - while the popular vote has no effect on official election outcome, it has a GREAT deal of effect on political discourse, and the optics.

Witness 2000, where the important story wasn't the hanging chads, but the divergence between popular and electoral votes.

Also, great political thinkers[1] of our times (well, slightly earlier times) have successfully imprinted in the consciousness of a LOT of people the importance of voting.

[1] Citation: "Vote Early and Vote Often". - Al Capone. (or not)

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If what you cared about was who wins the popular vote, than voting would matter even less to you. The only way your vote would change who won the popular vote is if there was an exact tie in the national popular vote, and that's really vanishingly unlikely, about 1 over the total number of voters according to this article: tinyurl.com/mp5jdj5 So a similar calculation to the one in my answer says that according to the von Neumann-Morgenstern axioms, it's irrational to vote if it costs you 10 cents or more, unless you care more about who wins the popular vote than about your life. –  Keshav Srinivasan Feb 5 at 3:00
    
Do you want to see the calculation? –  Keshav Srinivasan Feb 5 at 16:31
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@KeshavSrinivasan - unlike electoral "first past the post" vote, in popular vote the margin matters and not only the winner; which makes every vote equally important. –  DVK Feb 5 at 16:33
    
Well, even if the popular vote margin matters for political discourse and optics, presumably what matters for those purposes is not the exact difference in popular vote count, but merely the margin measured in percentage points. The probability that your vote will change the margin, rounded to the nearest percentage point, is about 1 in 1.3 million, so a similar calculation would tell you that it's irrational to vote if it costs you 8 dollars or more to do so (in terms of gas costs and time, for instance), unless you care more about changing the margin than about your survival. –  Keshav Srinivasan Feb 5 at 17:26
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@KeshavSrinivasan - most people routinely blow $8 or a lot more on a lot WORSE "investments", like seeing a romcom movie or going to a restaurant to eat food that would take less time and money at home, or smoke, or go to a bar. I am not sure why you see voting as such an unexpected behavior, given that "feeling good about doing ones civic duty" is an intangible benefit that is of definite non-zero utility function to many people. –  DVK Feb 5 at 18:09

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