The (Il)logic of Collective Action: Lessons from the 2008 Election

I have voted in three Presidential elections, and I have done so in three different states.  In none of the three elections did my vote have any bearing on the outcome of the election.  Bush would have won in 2000 and 2004 had I decided not to vote, and Obama would have won this year regardless of my voting behavior.  This teaches a valuable lesson about voting.

A lot of people who vote do so not on the basis of their convictions, but on the basis of their fears.  They choose “the lesser of two evils” based on the fear that if they don’t, somehow the greater of the two evils will win.  The probability that this will happen is so low that it can be safely ignored.  The probability that you will be killed in a car wreck driving to the polls is many, many, many times greater than the probability that your vote will be decisive.  If we’re willing to take such a risk to get to the polling place, why the sudden irrational caution when we get into the voting booth?  You can safely vote for the candidate who best represents your preferences—or not vote at all—without worrying about whether you will help the Wrong Candidate win.

“But,” people respond, “your maverick philosophy on voting and elections might inspire others to do the same, which could tilt the balance of the election.  Therefore, you must vote for one of the two candidates most likely to win.”

That’s a fair question but also exceedingly unlikely.  Let’s assume that third-party candidates only took votes from John McCain and consider a few scenarios based on where I have voted.  This year, John McCain received 1470160 votes in Tennessee.  Barack Obama received 1081075.  If everyone in the county I live in who voted for McCain—all 143422 of them—had either stayed home or voted for a minor-party candidate, McCain still would have won Tennessee by roughly a quarter-million votes.  Even if I had influenced enough people to turn Tennessee blue, Obama still would have won the Presidency.

I lived and voted in Saint Louis in 2004.  As of this writing, Missouri’s votes are still being tallied, but last I checked McCain is listed on the interactive map as having 1442613 votes while Obama has 1436745.  Had the 24562 voters in Saint Louis City who voted for McCain voted for someone other than McCain or Obama, it’s true that this would have swung Missouri in Obama’s favor—but Obama won the election without Missouri’s help.

Let’s go to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I voted in 2000.  McCain won Alabama with 1263741 votes to Obama’s 811510.  In Tuscaloosa County, McCain too 45351 votes to Obama’s 32738.  If everyone in Tuscaloosa County who voted for McCain had voted for Obama, McCain still would have won Alabama by over 400,000 votes.

We could go on and on.  I read an important lesson in all of this: people have a lot more latitude to vote their true preferences than they acknowledge.  They can end the depressing and self-defeating habit of holding their noses and voting for “the lesser of two evils” because even if they acted en masse in many places, they still wouldn’t influence the outcome of the election.

Opinion leaders should take this to heart, as well.  Religious conservatives were upset with the choice of John McCain as the Republican Party’s nominee, and progressives express dismay with the Democrats’ platforms almost every election cycle.  Instead of shrugging their shoulders and going to bat for the major party candidate who is least-bad in their eyes, opinion leaders of all political stripes can use the freedom afforded by the nature of the system and use their positions as forums for discussing ideas rather than forums for the mud-slinging and fear-mongering that is all too common during elections.  We can do better.  During the next election, we should.  If we recognize that the two-party system isn’t a binding constraint, we will.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College.
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