Voting for fun

The Economist writes... "in a world of voluntary voting, the real mystery is why so many voters turn out at all. Although votes matter in bulk, the chance of any individual vote deciding the outcome is minuscule."

And yet millions of people vote. They don't do it because they expect to actually get anything for it. Why?

(That same Economist article kind of fails to answer the question. They get caught in a nerd sand-trap and write about "civic duty", whether people are calculating probabilities, etc. Obviously not.)

In big elections, voting is fundamentally emotional, not rational. We vote, not because we have a chance of affecting the outcome, but because the act of voting feels good.

Casting a vote taps into some deep human drives. It feels good to participate. It feels good to have a say. It feels good to be on the side of what's right. If the wrong option later wins, we're inoculated: we can confidently say it wasn't our fault. If the right option wins, we're vindicated. Either way, we wore the colors, we showed up for our team.

Those are all emotional reasons.

Voters often understand perfectly well that they have no chance of changing the outcome. If you exit-polled a presidential election here in California, asking each person, "do you think your vote just changed the outcome?", you'd get a lot of annoyed laughs. Yet they're all here. If you asked them "are you glad you voted?" you'd probably get a much happier response.

People vote because it feels good, not for some vanishing chance of changing the result.

Now to push this to its logical conclusion. If you have no chance of changing the outcome, then it doesn't matter which outcome is actually better for you. It only matters which outcome feels better to vote for.

Lots of elections make more sense once you accept this uncomfortable conclusion. Trump voters didn't do math and conclude a world in which he won would be better for them. But most of them enjoyed voting for him. (Neither did Hillary voters, but most of them enjoyed voting for her, or at least felt satisfaction voting against him.)

Pundits sometimes make the error of treating voting like a test. If you vote for an insincere blowhard, that guy wins and passes some law that helps his cousin but hurts you, then you've been duped. You're a rube, you fell for something and voted wrong.

But it's really not a test. There's no reward for getting the right answer. It's totally rational to stay uninformed! It doesn't mean you're stupid or imply a lack of "civic duty" or any of that.

If it's not worth an hour voting for a 0% chance of changing the outcome--it certainly not worth many hours reading information and forming a nuanced opinion in addition. The people who do read about politics do so, again, out of emotional reasons: maybe they enjoy it, maybe they're procrastinating at work, maybe they want to sound smart at the party, maybe they want to fulfill a self-image as the kind of person who knows about these kinds of things. For a security guard living in Akron, maybe none of those reasons apply. So he doesn't read about politics, because it's not fun for him.

But he does wear the Trump, Facts Don't Care About Your Feelings shirt because that makes people who don't respect him mad, which is definitely fun. And he votes, that's satisfying too. And they hate it. And it feels really good.


Many of us would greatly like to see political change. Maybe we want different people to win here in local elections in California. Maybe we want a different governor. Maybe we want a different President. If we want these things...

We have to run people who are fun to vote for. Obama was fun to vote for. Bill Clinton, with his easy Southern humor and his saxophone, was fun to vote for. Voting is emotional: people will vote if it gives satisfaction, vindication, joy, hope, whatever you want to call it. It has to be fun. Whoever we nominate, from city council to president, has to meet that simple requirement, if we want to win. There's no consolation prize for being right.


1. Vitalik Buterin goes deep down the nerd hole on this topic. I'm not interested in "sortition voting" etc, but he did find an interesting analysis--a single voter's probability of deciding a presidential election. Apparently it's 1 in 3 million to 1 in 60 billion, depending on which state you're in.

2. The Economist wrote about why people vote. Same basic structure: they start by acknowledging that the EV of voting is approximately zero, then ponder why people do it anyway. But, characteristic for TE, they don't engage with emotions much. "The argument that people do something because they like it is hardly an illuminating insight". Sure, but if you fail to dig into the non-"Economist"y reasons why people like it, then you miss the plot.

3. Matt Taibbi goes straight to the point and covers the why. He's on his usual schtick, channeling Hunter S Thompson, trying to be funny and vulgar and cynical. I think he's basically right.