My friend Alan mentioned that he probably won’t vote because he doesn’t think his vote makes any difference.
Well, here’s an answer from Peter Norvig’s Presidential Election 2008 FAQ. The best answer I’ve seen for this question, IMHO.
Let me explain what the question means. For your vote to have an effect on the election, you would have to live in a decisive state, meaning a state that would give one candidate or the other the required 270th electoral vote. More importantly, your vote would have to break an exact tie in your state. With 100 million voters nationwide, what are the chances of that? If the chance is so small, why bother voting at all?
Historically, most voters either didn’t worry about this problem, or figured they would vote despite the fact that they weren’t likely to change the outcome. Then the 2000 Florida election changed all that. That election was finally decided by the Supreme Court rather than by counting the ballots, but various approaches to counting the ballots would have had the result varying from a 171 vote win for Gore to a 537 vote win for Bush.
What is the probability that there will be a decisive state with a very close vote total? Nate Silver says there is (as of Oct. 3) a 4% chance that a recount will be required; that is, that a decisive state will have a margin within 0.5%. There are about 8 swing states, so the odds that any one (let’s say Florida) would require a recount is 1/8 of 4% or 0.5%. There are 6 million voters in Florida, so a recount occurs there when the vote totals are within 30,000 of each other. So there’s about a 1/30,000 chance that the recount will end up so even that your vote would decide it. All together that’s a one in 6 million chance that your vote (assuming you live in one of the 8 swing states) would decide the election. (If you live in a solid state like Oklahoma or California, it just ain’t going to happen.)
That’s a small chance, but what is the value of getting to break the tie? We can estimate the total monetary value by noting that the current office holder presided over a $3 trillion war and at least a $1 trillion economic melt-down. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) estimated the cost of the Bush presidency at $7.7 trillion. Let’s compromise and call it $6 trillion, and assume that the other candidate would have been revenue neutral, so the net difference of the presidential choice is $6 trillion.
The value of not voting is that you save, say, an hour of your time. If you’re an average American wage-earner, that’s about $20. In contrast, the value of voting is the probability that your vote will decide the election (1 in 6 million) times the cost difference ($6 trillion). That means the expected value of your vote is $1,000,000. What else have you ever done in your life with an expected value of a million dollars per hour? Not even Warren Buffett makes that much.
So make sure you vote, and make sure you choose the candidate with a better economic plan (also check climate plans, which could also lead to trillion-dollar differences) so that your expected monetary value for your vote is +$1 million rather than -$1 million.
By the way, here’s proof that voting is patriotic: If you think of the value of your vote to the country, $1 million, then obviously voting is the right thing to do. But if you think of the value to yourself, by dividing the $1 million by 300 million Americans, then the benefit of voting is less than a penny, and the rational choice would be not to vote (since it costs you an hour of your time). So anyone who votes is patriotic, and anyone who doesn’t is selfish (or irrational).. I hope you’re a rational patriot.
Yes. Voting for president is one of the most cost-effective actions any American can take.