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Elections are no fun

Holding a vote is no justification for meddling in people's lives.

Pierre Lemieux - December 18, 2008

Most reactions to the 57% voter turnout — apparently a record low — in this week’s Québec election have been at best illiterate, at worst totally silly. Oh Dear! Voters don’t bother to vote while our recent ancestors have been shot and tortured for the right to hide in a booth and secretly put an anonymous piece of paper in a box full of others!

In reality, what is surprising is that so many did go through the trouble of voting. Whether an individual votes or stays at home has no influence on the election results. His vote would only make a difference if there had been a tie without it, an event so improbable that it never happens. And if, by a rare fluke, it did happen, a recount would be requested which would shift hundreds of votes one way or another, burying our lucky voter’s momentary influence into oblivion. An individual who claims to vote strategically is either a total ignoramus or he lies about his real motivation. There is a large economic literature on this topic, which I rapidly review in my new book Comprendre l’économie (pp. 349-357).

If individuals really voted to change election results, they would have a greater incentive to participate in elections with fewer voters, like municipal or school elections. But we observe just the opposite. The probability that one individual vote will influence an election result is so small whatever the number of voters that this number doesn’t change voters’ incentives in any noticeable way.

What happens is that voters participate in greater numbers in more publicized elections for the same reason that they are more interested in attending a National Hockey League game than a minor league game. Many people — probably the majority of voters — vote for the same reason that they applaud, shout, or participate in “the wave” at a hockey game. An individual’s action has no noticeable impact on the noise level and partisan support intensity, but it’s fun to be part of the crowd, to show solidarity with a cheering herd of supporters.

For these voters, the December 8 Québec election was not in the media enough to be fun. One reason was the federal political crisis which monopolized the media during the last week of the campaign.

Not all people vote for entertainment purposes. Some want to express their opinion, in some cases because they feel a moral duty to do so. Elections are a cheap way to express an opinion since it runs no risk of changing anything. This explains why people are often observed to vote against their own interests — like those who vote for parties intent on seizing their incomes or other property.

Whether people vote to entertain themselves, for the pleasure of expressing their opinion, or out of a sense of moral duty, it costs something to go and vote, if only in time. Secret voting has greatly reduced the cost of voting as no elector can be held responsible for his vote. But given that the voters' benefits are only expressive benefits, the cost doesn’t need to be large to discourage many. A voting tax of $6 — the sort that existed in the U.S. South before 1965 — reduced voter turnout by 42%. Similarly, the cold wave kept some Québec voters at home.

Moreover, for the individualistic French Canadian in the coureur des bois tradition, showing official ID to vote — your licence to travel or to get health care becomes your licence to vote — can only be humiliating.

More articles by Pierre Lemieux