What is the cost of not voting? What are the costs of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein? What are the benefits of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein? At this point you’ve heard conflicting versions of the One Simple Trick to understanding why voting is/isn’t a waste of time. Maybe the person advancing one of these even chopped up the electoral map into “voting matters here” and “voting doesn’t matter here” regions – pretty impressive precision.
Whether stated or implied, each rationale for voting/not-voting/voting-third-party/not-voting-third-party is supported by a voting model. The arguments all have at their core some model of how an individual can convert a vote into a beneficial outcome (or, alternatively, why she will fail if she tries).
What I keep seeing are models that address or “solve” a small corner of the problem space but fail to appreciate the vastness of the space. Let me use an analogy of a simpler (well, more well understood at least) type of model to explain what I mean. Imagine you’re on a team tasked with the question of what metal materials to use to construct an airplane. Imagine a colleague walks in urging the team that it should use the strongest metal it can find, because durability and safety were ranked primary among customer and company concerns. This person has a metal they want to propose to us, they can prove it’s the strongest available, and they can prove that the cabin will be able to take more abuse without puncturing/tearing, etc. using some tests they did in a lab. That may all be true, yet this person’s model of how an airplane works is obviously and fatally incomplete.
It’s not that they don’t have a model at all, and it’s not that their model isn’t internally rational at answering the narrow problem raised – the issue is that the model doesn’t appreciate that, among other things, the plane has to fly. Modeling the construction of an aircraft requires addressing problems of aerodynamics, cost, safety, durability, comfort, and more. You can’t model only durability of the aircraft, address that problem, and move on.
Getting an intuitive sense of the size and scope of the problem space in voting is hard, but below I’ll try to outline different aspects of it, so that when someone says “it’s simple, just …” you can respond “here’s why you’re advancing a position which essentially fails to account for the fact that the plane has to fly.”
None of my answers to the problems below is itself a working model for the entire problem space. That’s kind of the point. Plus, humility in a complex domain is a recurring theme here, and I may be wrong and am not even aiming to be complete in the discussions below. This is, after all, an attempt to outline the problem space.
Unless you can distinguish among the parts, building something with parts to spare does not mean any one specific part was useless, and by extension it certainly does not mean all the parts were useless.
Say it takes 2000 bricks to build a wall between you and your neighbor. And say you decide to crowdfund with a goal of 2000 bricks on a website that provides no visibility for anyone as to how many bricks have been donated (imagine they all have to donate on a single Tuesday in November and the website doesn’t tally same-day). If 2500 of your friends and loved ones each donate 1 brick, for a total of 2500 bricks, there is waste, but how much? What was the return on investment, in good-things-accomplished, for each donating person?
If you look at it from the vantage point of 1 individual, and consider the margin of 500 extra bricks, there is a temptation to say this individual’s contribution accomplished nothing or worse, created waste. Had they done nothing, the wall would still be built and with less waste. But unless you can distinguish among the contributors, you may receive this question 2500 times, and you will have to make this argument 2500 times, and your total return will not sum to the gain achieved (1 wall built, with some waste that isn’t that big a deal). Your local value, repeated over all local vantage points, not summing to the total, is a gigantic red-flag that your model is broken.
Because you can’t distinguish between the “core” backers and those on the margin, you have to allocate to each participant both the gains and the losses. You can’t tell who is a loser on the margin and who is a winner far removed from the margin.
Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem:
My favorite blogger - Scott Alexender of SlateStarCodex - posted some expected value math on his blog that I take strong issue with (despite enjoying the rest of the post). http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/09/28/ssc-endorses-clinton-johnson-or-stein/ Scott borrows from 538 that the odds the election is decided by 1 vote are roughly 1 in 60 million generally and closer 1 in a billion in California. Scott assumes the value of a presidential election win in the right direction is worth roughly $300 Billion. From this, Scott assigns an expected value to voting of $5,000 generally or $300 in California.
First, this is double counting. If even 100 million people do this math locally and conclude their vote has $5k value, the total value expected in that system will be $500 Billion, more than what is at stake in the election under the assumptions. At the very least, Scott needs to divide by the number of voters in the winning coalition to randomly select the 1 person in the Margin group vs the millions in the Core group. You don’t get to assume you cast the winning vote or else everyone else will make the same assumption, and your model’s values won’t sum.
Second, what about the other 59,999,999 elections where the margin of victory is more than 1 vote? The country still stands to win or lose $300 Billion based on whether the best candidate wins, and individuals deciding to turn out and vote, and who they vote for, in the aggregate of course determines the outcome. You have to allocate the $300 Billion wins even when the margin of victory is not 1. So Scott is undercounting across scenarios and double counting across indiviudals in the 1-vote-margin scenario.
This is a popular model for expected value of voting, the one that says the return on investment or expected value is equal to the probability that the election comes down to 1 vote, multiplied by the massive benefit that casting the winning vote would have if it occurred. There is an obvious issue here: most elections are not decided by 1 vote, yet the winning side still got their candidate elected and (presumably) got some benefit out of that win. The margin isn’t the only thing that exists, and unless you actually want a model that is useless in 99.99999…% of elections, you can’t refuse to allocate the gains because the scenario is “outside the model.” If you want to accurately model ROI/EV, you need to allocate the returns/values obtained regardless of the margin of victory.
To drive it home further: I’m sure you’ve encountered someone who simultaneously believes 1) that the collective voting result of the State of California is an incredibly valuable asset controlled by the Democratic Party, and 2) each individual vote in the California is meaningless and shows a return on investment of roughly zero because of the size of the typical margin of victory in CA. This argument puts every voter on the margin, glues them to that vantage point, and then concludes that they are in the Waste group not the Gains group and allocates to them 0 gains. This is hiding the ball, but some of the smartest people I know do it without realizing what they are doing.
Everything is Iterated - the winner never takes all in an iterated context
Suppose the IRS was having its last year of tax collection ever, and they knew it. Would they ever spend $100k of resources coming after someone for $50k in unpaid taxes? Well, maybe they would, but hopefully we agree it wouldn’t be a fiscally sound decision. But in the world where it isn’t the last year of tax collection ever, it might make a lot of fiscal sense to pursue enforcement actions that had immediate negative return on investment. This is common sense in an iterated context. Reputations matter, deterrence matters, perceived fairness (participants’ and witnesses’) matters.
In voting, reputations matter (‘we can’t endorse policy X, we will lose Y voters who have a reputation for caring’), deterrence matters (anyone think presidential candidates haven’t been deterred from taking an honest position on a variety of issues such as how religious they are?), perceived fairness (participants’ and witnesses’) matters (turnout in the next cycle can be impacted this cycle).
So how do the models you encounter hide this ball?
Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem: “Nobody cares about 1 voter’s reputation.”
Ah, so we’re back to Problem 1, where individual contributions are rounded to zero. Voters are 1 part in a large collective, but just as their vote doesn’t round to zero, neither does their reputation. Rounding to zero is refusing to believe the plane must fly. Candidates are strategic about what positions to take on the campaign trail, what to fight for once elected, etc. If their constituents had zero reputation, the candidates wouldn’t even know what to do to win them over if they wanted to!
“In our election system, there will always be two candidates, not a multitude, because the stronger coalition wins, and if one coalition breaks apart it only serves to cement the others’ lead.” Maybe so, but there is some sleight of hand here as well, to the extent the speaker means the same two parties will be in power, regardless of whether you vote third-party or fall in line and vote major party. First, you have the American Whig Party being replaced by the Republican Party in our nation’s history. Second, each election showcases different versions of the GOP and Democrat platforms. A GOP that gets crushed in 2016 will not likely show up with the same strategy in 2020. Each vote they didn’t get is an expressed preference in some other direction. The Parties (at individual and organized collective levels) look at those many directions and then make strategic choices to capture those votes.
We already have a multi-party system, as soon as you pick away at the delusion that the 2000 Democratic Party, for example, is the same exact party as the 2016 Democratic Party. Plus, if the coalition gets weak enough, a new one forms (Whigs replaced by Republicans). The names aren’t what we care about, and iteration can alter what the names stand for.
None of this iteration pressure on parties and candidates can be rounded to zero at the individual level, if you want your numbers to sum properly.
“Irrational Winners” – The Great Red-flag
Smaller elections are easier to visualize, let’s say in a school election the Class President gets to allocate funding to various afterschool clubs. The “Math, Physics, & Rationality Club” never votes in the class election – why would they, it’s a waste of time. The “Bible Study Club” votes religiously, so to speak, year after year. Who do you think gets the most funding?
Now, if the Math, Physics, & Rationality Club got together and made a pact to all vote, they could get that funding they want. But if they are disorganized enough, or large and spread-out enough, and can’t coordinate on a such pact (a collective action problem, hmmm), then they each have to decide to “waste their time” with just a tiny amount of hope that others also act contrary to their “rational” principles before anything changes. “If we can’t coordinate, nothing will change,” they each say to themselves without coordinating.
But wait a second, nobody said the Bible Study Club coordinated, we just said they voted. Maybe they’re also disorganized, large, and spread-out. But they just don’t know or don’t care that it is “negative expected value” to vote. They have this bizarre sense of civic duty and they just fill out a voting slip and place it in the box, year after year.
If asked to model the individuals in these two clubs, there is a temptation to arrive at the label “Rational Losers” for the Math, Physics, & Rationality Club members and the label “Irrational Winners” for the Bible Study Club members.
This post isn’t about the definition of “rationality” so much as it about recognizing that internal consistency doesn’t mean a model is “working.” Here, we have a model that impacts what it is modeling. The Math, Physics, & Rationality Club votes based on its model, but doesn’t stop to appreciate the impact of that recursive element. Let’s get to some examples of what I mean…
Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem: “Given the initial conditions of people who think like me believing voting is irrational, and the people who think nothing like me feeling duty-bound to vote, it remains irrational to vote. You can’t magically propagate your beliefs to the rest of the people who think like you, and you can’t magically change the initial conditions.”
This is the challenge of collective action in a nutshell. I’m not saying I have a solution for the short term (unless you count this blog post as my best attempt at a first step). But it’s instructive to notice that we have overcome other collective action problems with negative initial conditions, through shifting the definition of rational behavior – through changing the model.
Do you feel duty-bound to recycle even if the expected value is opaque and the returns are tiny at the individual level? Do you think your great-grandparents felt that way?
Do you feel duty-bound to vaccinate your kids even if you don’t live in an area with other unvaccinated kids (meaning your kids are extremely, extremely unlikely to be exposed to the diseases you’re vaccinating against)?
These are collective action problems in which there has developed an “irrational” duty at the individual level that results in collective rationality. And whether you toggle your label for these activities from “irrational” to “rational” is less important than the fact that you vaccinate your kids. You’ve internalized that winning is more important than clinging to yesterday’s model when that model impacts the behavior you’re modeling.
Again, forget the deep dive on the definition of rationality – who cares about one word – I’m here to win over the people saying “Not voting is simple.” or “Voting third-party in California is free, it’s that simple.” It’s anything but simple if you care about actually, eventually, getting it right, not just thinking you got it right because you’re staring at an incomplete model.