Election Predictions and the Responsibility to Vote–A few hastily-composed thoughts for election day.

The last few weeks have been full of bookie-like odds projections, predicting the outcomes of various races and the subsequent composition of governing bodies. How likely is the Senate to swing to the Republicans? It depends who you ask. The New York Times puts the odds at 75% and offers a graphic representation of how the odds have changed over time. Yesterday’s Huffington Post suggested a 77% chance. One CNN analyst today predicted 95%. The Washington Post goes as high as 96%.

Probabilistic statistics may make us uncomfortable at times, since they can suggest a higher degree of determinacy than is compatible with our sense of personal agency. They can also work against get-out-the-vote efforts. Don’t the voters decide elections, after all?

Honesty about the math, however, can be sobering. As rational choice theorists are sometimes fond of observing in the so-called “paradox of voting”, the probability that one person will cast the deciding vote in a large-scale election is infinitesimally small. Indeed, it is so small that the numerical representation of a consequence-based argument for voting (the pB term in the equation R = pB – C — namely, the the probability of casting the deciding vote multiplied by the benefits one will receive if and only if one’s preferred candidate wins) is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

So why vote?

Rational choice theorists focus on the “D” or “duty” term in the equation–the social and psychological benefits that are intrinsic to voting and that one receives even if one’s preferred candidate does not win. This is where economic theories of voting locate one’s sense of moral obligation.

The mathematical realities have led some Christians to argue that we ought to approach voting expressively rather than instrumentally. That is, we should vote sincerely rather than strategically, to borrow language from my colleague Tom Knecht. His  argument suggests that one should vote for a candidate that one truly endorses–rather than the least-of-several-evils that actually has a chance of winning–since one’s vote will not actually determine the election. Moreover, one could extend this argument to support the expressive value of not voting when the only choices are among minimally attractive candidates. Despite the varied merits of these argument, I want to suggest something else (not particularly original) here.

Voting does present a collective action problem, but it is not clear to me that this requires one to entirely reject an instrumental approach to voting (i.e., one that is geared toward contributing to a particular outcome). While one vote is not generally instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office, elections nevertheless are instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office and that this has implications for how we see individual voting inputs. The argument that one vote does not determine an election requires all other things to remain equal–for others to behave as one expects them to do. Thus, the logic of the case for expressive voting or non-voting require that others not do likewise.

Since we are responsible for ourselves more than we are responsible for others, I wonder whether we might not retain certain election-outcome-based moral arguments for voting. Since we do not have the responsibility (let alone the ability) to keep all other things equal (cast others votes for them or require that they do so), we can only behave in a manner that spends our own political authority responsibly. Put another way, what is our duty with regard to elections, and why? If candidate selection is even slightly implicated, then I don’t know that we can accept a purely expressive view.

The biblical concept of faithfulness is instructive here. Proverbs 16:9 states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (NIV) While the supremacy of God’s wisdom and providence are in view here, so is human agency in relation to Him. I’ve often reflected that humans are responsible for being faithful with inputs and that God is responsible for outcomes. I think this is well applied to an argument for voting instrumentally, not just expressively.

If I am right about this, then faithfulness may require spending our political authority responsibly–as if we are casting the deciding vote, even when we aren’t. This doesn’t deal with all the attendant issues and problems raised by rational choice models and arguments for expressive voting, but it does suggest something of what we should do.

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