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Is There Any Point in Voting? Yes, There Is

with 13 comments

Is there any point in bothering to vote? Tim Harford of the Financial Times says no.

And he is wrong.

As reported in the review of Harford’s book “The Undercover Economist” book on The New York Times:

There’s no point in voting at all, for that matter, as a purely logical act. So if you stayed home that day, relax. If you really want to make a difference, buy lottery tickets — your chances of hitting the jackpot are roughly equal to your chances of swinging an election — and devote your winnings to political lobbying.

And don’t bother to read up on the issues, either. “Because the chance of any individual’s vote making any difference to the result is tiny, the benefits of turning an uninformed vote into an informed vote are also tiny,” Mr. Harford writes. “Rationally speaking, why bother?

To know more about the wisdom behind those statements, visit Tim Harford’s own website, in particular “Your vote doesn’t count“, published on the 10th of November, 2007:

Notoriously, an individual’s vote makes no difference to anything. According to the British election watcher David Boothroyd, in 24 general elections since 1918, each spanning hundreds of parliamentary constituencies (most recently, 646), there has only ever been one valid election where your vote could have made a difference

I find such a reasoning rather underwhelming.

Elections are not made by individual voters, but by the behaviour of many individual voters: and that is what counts when thinking about “making a difference“.


So on the subject of going to vote or not: imagine (a) the majority of people think the way you do.

If you decide (a.1) to vote then, you know the majority of people will think the same, and will go to vote. Under those circumstances, people that don’t vote are in the minority and it makes little sense to join them: voting is the logical choice.

If you decide (a.2) not to vote, you know the majority of people will not go to vote either. But that means the opinions of whoever goes to vote carry a larger weight than usual: voting is, once again, the logical choice.

Imagine now (b) the majority of people do not think the way you do. If you decide (b.1) to vote, you know the majority of people will not go to vote. All more the reason to go to the polls: voting is, for the third time, the logical choice.

Finally if you decide (b.2) not to vote, the majority of people will vote. Obviously, instead of getting stuck with the idle minority, it will make sense to join the majority: and so voting is… the logical choice.

Voting is always the logical choice: independently from the “difference” a single vote could or could not make.


The above is freely inspired by Douglas Hofstadter’s “Metamagical Themas: Questing the Essence of Mind and Pattern“, a marvelous collection of Scientific American essays where the renowned author of “Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” investigates (in the last section “Sanity & Survival“) some non-immediately-obvious ways of solving cooperation dilemmas.

One only wishes Tim “Undercover Economist” Harford had read under the cover of Hofstadter’s book and expanded his own reasoning to include… reason,  instead of limiting himself, in true economic form, to the mere numbers of an election.


There is one possibility left aside: so-called “voters’ strike”, where people decide to protest en masse hoping their absence will be noted. In this case, there are two potential outcomes: (c) few people participate and (d) many, many people refuse to vote.

Under (c) the strike is a failure, so voting make more sense. And under (d), since very few people vote, it’s definitely time to do it (as in a.2 and b.1 above).

There is no escape to the fact that voting is, from a logical point of view, the only option. 

Written by omnologos

2008/Feb/27 at 22:23:37

13 Responses

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  1. All of your reasoning sounds like rubbish. 50% of your ‘logic’ above is reasoned by saying that joining the majority is always better than being in the minority. that is faulty logic on many levels. If you always act in the way the majority acted than CHANGE would never happen.

    Jeff Ward

    2008/Apr/09 at 16:31:50

  2. i think you missed out an extra, slightly key, possibility for what happens when you vote. as you say, the majority can either ‘think the way you do’ or ‘not think the way you do’. but there is also the *very remote chance* that the majority of people have never met you, and think for themselves instead of following your retarded logic.
    and even if people did do exactly the same or opposite to you, then in a2, if you decide not to vote and no one else does, then the logical choice is not to vote, because you can’t. because you’ve already decided not to vote. duh. and if you change your mind and do vote, then everyone else will vote too. thus your vote is really insignificant again. your argument is so circular it’s just stupid.

    what’s more, people like you probably have ‘respectable’ degrees and authority over other people in this world. embarrassing


    2009/Nov/23 at 17:13:28

    • nick – you have missed b1 and b2, and have a slightly confused approach to making decisions (“you can’t”). But thank you for considering me a person of authority.


      2009/Nov/23 at 17:35:11

  3. your argument doesn’t even bother to address the fact that a single vote effects an election even thought you set that up in the first paragraph



    2010/Mar/23 at 23:39:23

  4. What an awful article and argument. The logic makes absolutely no sense and says nothing to contradict Tim Hartfords views. Everything you say is based on two assumptions: firstly if fewer people vote then you have more voting power and should logically vote, and secondly if more people vote, then you should logically follow the crowd. ????? Firstly these assumptions are both incredibly stupid and also contradictory.

    I imagine that Douglas Hofstadter would be ashamed that his writing inspired you to create this evident misunderstanding of basic logical arguments.


    2010/May/19 at 08:17:44

    • Charlie – I’ll keep your comment as future reference for bombastic polemics.


      2010/May/19 at 10:02:04

  5. I disagree with Tim Harford when he says “your chances of hitting the jackpot are roughly equal to your chances of swinging an election”. It’s hard to believe, but every vote counts. However, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, if there’s a decision that the government has made and you don’t like it, the only way to get to government to listen to you is to get the majority to speak out. There are political issues out there that are important to me, that most people don’t care about. So I can kick and scream all I want, it won’t make a difference. What I’m saying is that one person can’t make a difference, so I no longer see a point in voting.


    2010/Jun/29 at 23:31:14

    • I think what you’re saying, Justin, is that one person’s only way to make a difference is to convince many to vote in a particular direction…sort of like a “democracy by proxy”.

      In other words, you are saying that the only way to make a difference is to become a politician (in the best meaning of the term).


      2010/Jul/15 at 13:37:35

  6. A private decision to vote or not to vote has no impact on the election aside from the presence or absence of one ballot.


    2010/Jul/18 at 08:59:30

    • rhizome – your reasoning only works if the person deciding to vote or not assumes that he or she is so special, nobody else will think that way


      2010/Jul/28 at 22:41:59

      • suppose i intend to vote for candidate A but i make a mistake on the form and vote for candidate B instead. i would argue that my intention makes no difference, and that my individual vote has no impact.


        2010/Jul/28 at 22:56:52

      • Charlie – “my intention makes no difference, and that my individual vote has no impact”

        If that’s been your view for quite a while, it’s very likely many other people think just the same about their own votes, mistake or no mistake


        2010/Sep/10 at 07:06:30

  7. I voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. It ended up, essentially, being vote for the Tories. I shall not bother to vote again.
    You should only vote if your views are represented. If they are not, why would you vote? Since in the UK only two parties have any chance of winning outright, and they are very similar in many ways, again I ask, what is the point in voting?
    If you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, what is the point of voting?
    If your vote is wasted if the candidate you vote for does not get in, what is the point?
    Voting is not the be all and end all of democracy. Having a say is democracy. If your vote is not representative of your opinions, is based on the likelihood that only one of two parties will get elected, is decided by the lesser of two evils, and is void if your candidate fails to win, please, answer me this.


    2012/Jan/03 at 10:58:23

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