People who vote for the other guy aren’t stupid, brainwashed, or evil. They are your friends and family. Someone you love will almost certainly cancel your vote. (My wife cancels out mine.)Now, this raises an interesting question: if you and your spouse’s votes cancel each other out (let’s suppose that they cancel out for every item on the ballot), then wouldn’t everyone be better off – or at least no worse off – if both of you abstained and went on a date instead? The outcome would not change at all, both members of the couple would avoid the cost and inconvenience of voting, and other voters’ wait in line would be shortened by a tiny bit.
Turns out there’s a kind of prisoners’ dilemma at work. Let’s say that each of you places a value of X on having one added vote for your candidate of choice, and negative X on each added vote for the opposition. The cost of voting, in terms of time, effort, and forgone opportunities (like a date) is Y. Assume X > Y, meaning you’d like to vote if doing so actually increased your candidate’s net vote total. And assume you support different candidates, with only two candidates on the ballot. The matrix below shows your payoffs:
The red payoffs are the husband’s, green the wife’s. Notice that each person has voting as a dominant strategy. When the other person is voting, you should vote because - Y > - X; and when the other person is abstaining, you should vote because X – Y > 0. So both spouses vote, and each ends up with – Y. They would both have been better off avoiding the polls and going to a movie. And to the rest of the world, it’s a wash.
The problem generalizes, because your vote can be canceled by anyone voting on the other side, not just your spouse. It would make more sense collectively if people started abstaining in pairs (one person favoring each candidate), until only a number of voters equal to the dominant candidate’s margin of victory remained. For example, if 1,000,036 people preferred candidate A and 1,000,002 preferred candidate B, it would be more efficient if just 34 supporters of A voted and everyone else did something else. The outcome would be no different, and everyone involved would be better off or at least no worse off. Unfortunately, the incentives of the prisoners’ dilemma structure gives people incentives contrary to efficiency.
Is there a way to achieve something closer to the efficient solution? Here is my modest proposal.
Just for record, I realize I’m leaving a lot of things out here. I’m aware that some people consider voter turnout important for its legitimizing effects, though I’ve never found that argument very persuasive. Other people – including me – value participation in the process for its own sake, or for entertainment value, regardless of the impact on the vote total. Still, the current system certainly expends a great deal of resources just to establish a tiny margin of victory.