Voting can seem irrational — but you should do it anyway

Voting can seem irrational — but you should do it anyway

The health of our democracy depends on active participation by citizens in the processes of self-government, including electing the president. In general, the more Americans who vote for president, the more likely the outcome will reflect the popular will of the country (although, as we saw in 2016, a candidate can receive the most votes and still lose the election).

But while heavy voter turnout for a presidential election is a good thing for our democracy, whether or not it is rational for you to take the trouble to vote will depend on your motive — that is, whether or not you vote as a citizen, acting to fulfill a civic duty, as opposed to, say, voting out of self-interest, as in trying to help elect a candidate who promises to protect your job or cut your taxes.

In fact, presidential candidates commonly appeal to voters’ self-interest. In 1980, Ronald Reagan torpedoed Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterRemembering the Carter era — and what it tells us about today Spiking inflation weighs on Biden economic agenda Press: Ice cream's back — thank you, Joe! MORE’s reelection by urging Americans to ask themselves, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In 2020, before the country was hammered by COVID-19 and its devastating economic effects, President TrumpDonald TrumpNew Capitol Police chief to take over Friday Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip MORE cited a strong economy as the main reason voters should give him a second term. It can seem natural, then, to see your vote for president in purely personal terms, as basically a transactional activity in which you seek to contribute to a political result that will best serve your own interests. If this is your view, then you may be surprised to realize that voting in a presidential election solely out of self-interest is irrational. 


Here’s why. In an election in which millions of votes will be cast, you can be certain that your single vote will not decide the outcome. If your candidate wins, he or she would have won even if you had not voted. If your candidate loses, your vote was futile. Either way, your vote won’t make the difference.

Consequently, if the only goal of your voting is in some way to make yourself better off, your vote is pointless. Any personal costs of your voting – in time (substantial, if lines are long), effort, absence from work or even (in this pandemic) risk to health – exceed the personal benefits, which are zero. In economic terms, the “expected value” of your voting for president strictly in pursuit of self-interest is negative, making that act irrational. (Homo economicus, the wholly self-interested “rational utility-maximizer” of economic theory, would not bother to vote, knowing that millions of other people, not being rational utility-maximizers, will vote.)

But if self-interest doesn’t give you a good reason to vote for president, then why should you vote? The answer is that, as a citizen, you are the holder of a public office – a political role every bit as vital to our democracy as elected positions – and voting is a duty of that office. Indeed, in his farewell address to the nation, President Obama, paraphrasing Justice Brandeis, called citizen “the most important office in a democracy.”  

Although citizen is a legal status, what makes it a public office is that it also carries moral duties that, while not legally enforceable, are civic imperatives critical to our democracy. For example, while specific laws are enforceable mandates, the obligation to obey the law is a moral duty of citizens, a basic requirement of the social contract. Many of us believe that, as citizens, we also have a duty to treat other citizens – including people with whom we disagree politically – with civility and respect. And the large numbers of white Americans taking part in protests sparked by George Floyd’s death suggest that many of them are coming to recognize a civic duty to speak out and act against systemic racial injustice.

That a person occupies a public office – such as mayor or senator – gives them a strong reason to fulfill the duties of that office: That’s their job, the duties come with the office. The more important the office to our political system, the more important it is that the holder conscientiously discharge her duties, and no office is more important to a democracy than citizen. Because presidential elections are indispensable processes in which Americans practice, as Lincoln put it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” it is inarguable that voting in elections – especially national elections – is an essential duty of citizens.


But this is not a duty fulfilled simply by voting for president. Voting responsibly as a citizen depends on the reasons on which you base your vote. For, as the philosopher Joseph Tussman observed in “The Office of the Citizen,” a 1960 lecture that deserves to be more widely known than it is, “When we are called upon to act in our capacity as public officers – as voters, for example – the crucial point is that we are being asked our judgment on a public question. We are not being asked for an expression of our private interests. The first problem of [civic] responsibility is to see this demand and to respond to it.” 

Later in his talk, Tussman explained that “in discharging his public function the citizen is being asked his judgment about the public interest, and . . . failure to discipline his private concerns is a failure of moral responsibility. The office of the citizen has at least this much in common with the office of the judge, the legislator, or the administrator.”

In voting as a citizen, you vote for president because it is your duty as a citizen, basing your vote on your honest judgment about what is in the best interests of the country.  While your individual vote will not causally determine who wins, your voting is rational and even obligatory as a civic duty to take part in the collective act of citizens’ choosing whom to entrust with the nation’s highest office. While voting as a citizen aims at the public interest, the rationality of your voting for president doesn’t depend on achieving that – or any other – goal but on your fulfilling your duty as a citizen. And thus, unlike the vote of one who votes out of self-interest, your vote matters whether or not your candidate wins.

Dana Radcliffe teaches ethics at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. Martin Dobelle, an alumnus of the Maxwell School, is a social impact investor and managing partner of Balboa Capital Group.