Should I Vote?
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
By Aranyak Saikia
With the Lok Sabha Elections just concluded, and the electorate being swept away by a Modi wave that (according to some) led to unprecedented turnout, proponents of the Rational Choice Theory are finding it hard to explain why so many Indians (nearly 65% of 800 million eligible voters) are irrational enough to waste 30 to 60 minutes of their precious life over an activity as indecisive as voting. Economists belonging to this school of thought, however, have not found much popularity beyond the subject they teach or profess. But since this is Econ After Hours, I, as an economist (well, not really an economist yet, but soon-to-be) have a moral responsibility to touch upon the subject and bring to the notice of my less informed peers (again assuming I’m very well informed).
There is this popular story (Levitt and Dubner 2005) about two world class economists who see each other in a polling booth once. First, they avoid eye contact, and pretend to not see each other. After they come out of the booth, however, they bump into each other accidently. Now there is no way they can avoid each other. One of them says that it was because of his wife’s constant pressure that he came to vote that day. The other economist gives the same reason. After a mutually sheepish moment, one of them hatches a plan: “If you promise never to tell anyone you saw me here, I’ll never tell anyone I saw you.” They shake hands, finish their polling business and scurry off. This story makes it pretty clear how the economics profession despises voting. Well, the reasons are pretty clear (to a “rational” economist, at least)- Your individual vote makes no difference to the electoral outcome. Consider a typical Lok Sabha Constituency. It has around 20 lakh voters (1.2 billion divided by 543 ). So the probability of your vote making a difference to the electoral outcome is 1 in 2 million or 5×〖10〗^(-7) . That’s worse than a lottery. And people who play such lotteries do not have the typical convex preferences we economists assume about rational consumers. So, when you go to vote, you are actually playing a lottery. Thus, you are no longer rational. You’d be better off if you spent that time shopping or watching a movie, and at least contributing to the national income.
However, the gains to society from voting are enormous. If every person decides to vote, then we have 800 million voters (for India that is) turning up at the polling booth and that surely is a healthy sign for our democratic politics. But, if every individual thinks that voting is surely irrational and decides to abstain, it will surely be a disaster. Thus, the intermediate turnout of around 60 to 70% that we observe in the polls is the result of this “public good” economics. There is a positive externality in voting. But the gains to society far outweigh the gains to an individual who decides to vote. So we have ‘too little voting’.
If there is too little voting, and if individuals are acquiring more information and becoming more rational by the day (as is assumed by a large number of economists), why is it that voter turnout is increased in India this year, as compared to 2009 (Highest ever voter turnout recorded in 2014 polls 2014)? Based on RCT, it should actually be falling, contrary to what is observed. A new school of thought has tried to explain this puzzle by moving beyond individual rationality and looking at how people view the gains to society (Gelman and Kaplan 2008). So here’s how the argument goes. If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 1.2 billion people. If you think your preferred party could bring the equivalent of a Rs. 50 improvement in the quality of life to the average Indian—not an implausible hope, given the size of the Union budget and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the courts, and other areas—you’re now buying a Rs.60 billion lottery ticket. With this payoff, a one in two million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds . In fact, the value of voting, the expected value of the lottery, is now INR (6*10^10)/(2*10^6)=INR 3*10^4, the price of a good Mobile Phone! This is possible only if an individual values the gains to society. And it doesn’t appear to be such implausible an assumption. After all, hundreds of millions of individuals till now have sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom, or democracy, and that too, for hundreds of years. To put all these sacrifices and peoples’ movements under the bracket of irrationality does not bode well for the economics profession.
So one might question (that includes people like me, although I’m not famous enough for people to take my questions seriously) whether the assumption of ‘rationality’ is itself irrational or not. And there seems to be a growing consensus on this among economists. So, all of you who read this piece hoping for something interesting, don’t be disappointed at my sheer lack of creativity. My objective was to set your minds rolling on this issue of rationality, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job at that (no matter how vehemently you deny it).
Gelman, Andrew, and Noah Kaplan. “Is Voting Rational?” Economist’s View, April 4, 2008.
Levitt, Steven D, and Stephen Dubner. “Why Vote? .” The New York Times, November 6, 2005.
The Times Of India. “Highest ever voter turnout recorded in 2014 polls.” May 13, 2014.
Note: The author has given the citations only after his initial draft without the citations was rejected by the Editorial Board. However, he still maintains that a case of plagiarism would have taken years, if not decades, to prove his guilt or innocence, even if the citations were not mentioned, for he feels that these are issues of intense discussion and no author can lay claim to these issues.