The Rational Voter

Why do people vote?

Photo: Kirk Cameron. Source: Morguefile

The odds of one vote affecting a national election are infinitesimally small. This year, in New Hampshire, those chances increased from infinitesimally to microscopically small. But still, any rational observer would have to conclude that Election Day is an exercise in the triumph of hope over experience—a sort of mass-delusion in which we willingly deceive ourselves into believing that We Can Make a Difference.

Because we also know that if it comes down to a dozen votes, the recounts and lawsuits will be so numerous that we could heat our homes this winter with all the hot air that’s generated. Some group of judicial officials far removed from us would make the final call. And we’d have to sit on our hands, like football fans frustrated by the refs, enraged but impotent.

Some say that it’s the linking of national with local issues that brings us to the polls. After all, it’s sometimes the case that local issues get decided by one or two votes. I’ve personally seen two such instances in the past decade. But it’s almost impossible to find out about local ballot initiatives ahead of time. And turnout is a lot lower in local elections. it may be that we vote to feel good about ourselves—voting as a consumption good. If that’s the case, though, then why do we complain about long lines and poor organization? If voting were like exercise, then overcoming obstacles would make us feel better, not annoyed.

Photo: Mark Buckawiki. Source: Wikimedia

No, I think voting is one of those public goods that people just donate—like picking up trash on a mountain trail that you’ll never hike again. We do it because we know that it makes our country a better place. And if we don’t like the outcome, we can always buy a bumper sticker that proudly proclaims: “Don’t blame me: I voted for the other candidate.” We retain our right to complain.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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