ParadoxOfVoting (ThoughtStorms)

“As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states, it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors.”


The paradox of voting is the bane of rational choice theorists. The probability of your vote deciding any large-scale election is insignificant. If the cost of voting is at all significant and the benefit from your side winning is not incredibly large, the rational individualist won't vote.

If voting is generalised to 'contributing' this is the PublicGoodProblem, where the public good is the desired election result. You can freeride by staying at home and letting others go out and vote for you.

The result is proved in the ‘calculus of voting’ model (Downs 1957, Riker & Ordeshook 1968). (See VotingModel.)

Even most ardent rational choice theorists now think that in voting and other collective decisions people are influenced by non-individualistic and ‘irrational’ factors. Things like habits, duties and moral sentiments and the desire to ‘express a preference’.

This does not mean that the rational choice model should be ditched altogether. On some aspects of even large-scale voting situations it sheds more light than anything else. On other aspects it plainly needs to be supplemented, but could still provide the core of a theory.

Elections are charged with tradition, ideology and strongly held beliefs. For older people in particular, voting is a chance to make a statement or express solidarity with all those who ‘fought and died to win the right to vote.’ Voting itself is virtually costless, even enjoyable for some. Voting is not a typical case of a collective action problem.

Even so, there are some aspects of electoral behaviour that fit very closely with rational choice models. In particular, expectations about turnout and closeness are very important in elections.

This can be explored more closely in a richer StrategicVotingModel.

See also :