Does your vote really count in a democracy?

As the elections in Karnataka near, there will be plaintive pleas for “educated people” not to waste their vote, the underlying belief being that uneducated voters will vote any way even without being told to.

Every vote, we will be told, counts. If we don’t, somebody else will. And it is because educated people don’t cast their vote that our democracy is in its current shape.

Is it?

An American reader asked Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist, who blogs at The Financial Times, London, the question:

Dear Economist: I’m an American. As you know, the primary elections are heating up here, and in a few months we’ll have the real thing. Eight years ago I caught flak from my wife for not voting; I tried pointing out the minuscule impact of a single vote (mine). She responded that if everyone thought as I did, no one would vote. However, I don’t make decisions for everyone, just myself. Is it rational for me to vote, considering only the effect of my vote on the outcome of the election, and leaving out (for once) my wife’s lowered opinion of me?

Dear PB: I accept that your vote has almost no chance of deciding the outcome. Even in the infamous Bush-Gore contest in Florida in 2000, the chance that a single Florida voter could have changed the outcome seemed minuscule at the time. With hindsight it was zero, since the official margin of victory was more than one vote.

For this reason, nobody votes hoping that his vote will change the outcome. We vote instead because we like to feel involved, out of a sense of duty, or—importantly—to avoid being criticised by our friends and loved ones. These motives are enough to get about half of us out to the polls, but not enough to persuade us to engage in pointless research into the details of each candidate’s policy platform. All of which explains why many people vote, but few do so in an informed fashion.

None of this changes the fact that democracy is useless without a decent number of voters. That is why your wife is right to put you under pressure. It should go without saying that ignoring her would be highly irrational.

Read The Undercover Economist blog