The argument goes as follows: No modern election has ever been won by a single vote, so as an individual I should not vote. I work in a quantitative field and part of that is coming to conclusions very similar to this. The ineffectual argument is used so often in conversations I either take part in or overhear and I have yet to encounter a good response. The problem is that I tend to believe this is indeed the logical conclusion for an individual and if voting was a physics problem then indeed I would also conclude it is a useless endeavour. I have always felt that it is important to stay informed and to use my rare opportunities to vote wisely but recently I thought it would be useful to formalise why I believe it is an important civic duty regardless of the seemingly obvious logical conclusion.
It is important here to draw a clear distinction between why people vote from a psychological standpoint and what the reasons one should vote are. This series of posts provides some useful psychological reasoning into why people do in fact vote, the conclusion being that some studies suggest people are more likely to vote if they perceive a victory in the previous election and conversely become less likely to vote if their party loses. An interesting extension to this line of research would be to understand how the likelihood of an individual voting changes as the degree of loss of victory changes i.e. if their particular party won or lost by a large or small margin. If individuals are indeed more likely to vote when their party loses by a small margin then the tiny affect every individual has on the percentage outcome will make a difference in the next vote.
The question of why people vote is of course interesting but it mostly seeks to explain supposed illogical behaviour without trying to address whether logic is truly the correct tool with which to examine the voting process. I dispute the idea that an individual’s choice to vote should be motivated from a purely logical standpoint since many of the decisions we make on a day to day basis do not follow this process.
Here is the most useful long read I could find that helped me to round up my views on the subject. The author draws upon the analogy of a firing squad, to which you belong, about to execute an individual. In this situation the outcome has already been decided and regardless (assuming that the person being killed is an innocent civilian) it would be wrong for you, as a member of the firing squad, to pull the trigger. Using the same reasoning it would seem that the collective responsibility presents a moral case for voting as well if one agrees that a democratic society is indeed a good thing. More concretely the innocent civilian plays the roll of democratic society i.e. preserving the life of an innocent civilian is accepted as good in the same way as a maintaining a democratic society via voting is good. The point of the analogy is that your actions, to shoot the individual or vote, will have no impact on the outcome, or to use the authors phrase the situation is causally overdetermined. Though this example is extreme it is provides an elegant analogy for most voting systems and it is easy to see where the system would break down. If in fact the price of not shooting was your life then obviously this would not make sense since you make no difference to the innocent victim. The point to draw here is that when the individual cost is low, then there is a moral case for not taking part in shooting. The cost to an individual (in most voting systems in the western world) is extremely small and as such should be taken part in.
This kind of collective morality is actually of fundamental importance in modern society. It is true that our natural predication is to have an altruistic view of the closest 100 – 200 people. Extending our natural altruism to greater society becomes difficult since it is likely that we will never encounter most people and yet the way any election turns out has fundamental consequences for individuals around the country. It is therefore clear that not only should one vote, but one should make informed choices that benefit society.