Thursday, January 6, 2022

Should You Vote to Influence Others?

Unless you live in one of a handful of swing states, your vote has an insignificant chance of being decisive. In reply, sometimes people argue that you will motivate enough others to vote by setting an example, a result that *will* have a significant chance of making a difference. Here are some reasons why I’m unpersuaded by this argument.

First, I’d want to see some empirical evidence that we actually do exert this sort of influence on others. It’s not the sort of thing we can determine from the armchair.

There’s also a “$20 bill on the sidewalk” argument for doubting that I am that influential. If I have that much influence over others, isn’t Nike leaving tons of money on the table by not paying me to wear their shoes and boost their sales significantly?

And if I *am* that influential, I also have a reason *against* voting. For instance, I’d need to worry that by driving to the polls, I’ll cause many others to drive, thereby worsening climate change and increasing the risk of a deadly traffic accident.

Setting aside the previous worry, it’s still unclear that influential people have a duty to vote. First, their duty would not be to vote but rather to be *seen* voting. Thus, voting without publicity wouldn’t fulfill your duty, which is a bit strange. Furthermore, insofar as your influence is doing the moral work, you don’t even have to vote! Rather, you could just buy a roll of “I Voted!” stickers and place one on your shirt whenever there is an election.

It’s also not clear that broadcasting that you’re a voter will increase voter turnout even if you *are* influential. A rational observer might note that *their* vote is now ever-so-slightly less likely to be decisive and thus be dissuaded from voting.

Even if you do cause more people to vote, that outcome need not be good. If you cause others to vote for the wrong candidate, your influence will be harmful rather than beneficial. Of course, you could solve this problem by broadcasting not only that you voted, but also which candidate you voted for. But now you’ve provided an incentive for out-party members who otherwise wouldn’t vote to vote in order to neutralize your vote.

A related argument for voting is that what I’ll call the “you never know” argument. That is, since it is *possible* that your single vote will flip the outcome for the better (or be the difference in preserving our democratic institutions), you ought to vote. But this argument doesn’t work either. Suppose NASA informs you that there is a 1 in 225 trillion chance that a comet will destroy your house (if memory serves, this was roughly the chance of a DC voter casting a deciding vote in the last election). It would be irrational for you buy insurance to protect against this risk, even though it is *possible* that the comet will hit and the result would be quite bad. Probabilities matter.

Furthermore, the “you never know” argument also speaks *against* voting. After all, you “never know” if you are voting for the right candidate—and you certainly wouldn’t want to flip the election to the wrong candidate. Similarly, you “never know” if you’ll cause a 20 car pile up on your drive to the polls, resulting in the death of many people.