Saturday, January 22, 2005

Powerball and Democracy

I've often heard it said that lotteries are a tax on the math-challenged.

The odds of winning Powerball's grand prize are one in 120.5M. There were 122.2M votes cast in the presidential election. So it's actually more likely that I will win Powerball than that my vote would be the deciding one in a presidential election.

Of course, that's too simplistic by half. In about 35 states, a citizen's vote had no chance at all of influencing the presidential election. Assuming that the electoral college came down to a single state where the candidate's popular vote totals were separated by only one vote, mandatory recounts and administrative/judicial intervention would essentially take the decision out of the hands of the voters, since we know that a vote result that close is essentially a tie anyway. So even in swing states, it seems that any one vote is meaningless; they only have value en masse.

What's the point of all this, you ask? Like Seinfeld, but less funny, I have no point. I am still reading admin law, and I ran across this, which strikes me as harsh and possibly true:

Any citizen who calculated the likelihood that his or her vote would be determinative in the election of a legislative representative, discounted by the probability that the representative would in fact correctly express the citizen's preferences with respect to legislation that came before the assembly, would conclude that voting is useless.


Blogger Matthew said...

On the contrary, I think that every vote does count. It's simply a common myth that the truth is otherwise.

To elaborate, Ohio would only have been the key state in 2004 if, say, Kerry had also won Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin (as he did, indeed, do). It's one of those weird circumstances where people suddenly crown one state the deciding factor in an election, when in fact every state, and indeed every vote in each state counts.

For example, let's take my home state, Illinois. Kerry won here by over 10%, as he was expected to. I heard many people, on both sides of the political aisle, say their vote didn't count here because of the expected 'blue state' outcome. But that just isn't true. If you have a sample state of, let's say, 100 people, and pre-election polls show the Democrat taking the state 60 / 40, then the only way that will happen is if most of those who were polled actually go and vote. If, say, 21 of the 60 Democratic voters decide that their vote "just doesn't count", and stay home on election day, and then ALL of the 40 Republican voters decide to go out and vote, then that assumed blue state suddenly becomes a red state on election day, with the Republican winning 40 / 39 (the rest of the population have stayed at home). This is why every vote counts.

Now, some may say that my example is true, but only to a point, that point being once the tie-breaking vote is counted, and a winner for the state declared. This is true in practical terms, although since voting is anonymous, and no one knows if their will be before or after that tie-breaker (or if it will be the tie-breaker, itself) then that suddenly re-ups the importance level of each and every vote, if only in the abstract.

So, in a nutshell, every vote in every state counts. Since we decided to make Ohio the state of contention in 2004 (why, I don't know, as other states were much closer), people kept saying that Kerry and Bush needed it to win. But if either one of them hadn't won one of the other states that they did win, then Ohio wouldn't have matter one jot.

And to just presume that states such as NY and IL will be automatic locks for Dems, and that TX and OK are sure bets for Repubs assumes that enough of the registered citizenry will vote as they're expected to. And what does that mean?

It means that every vote counts.

Take care.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Every vote does count, but any particular vote only has a value as part of the greater mass of votes cast. A premise of my argument would be "given that the other people who are going to vote, vote."

In any election, somebody is going to vote (that is, there is no election in which literally nobody votes). Given that a certain percentage of people will vote, any one vote has no determinative power at all. Winning by one vote is a tie, and after recounts occur and all the vote totals have been several times revised, it's certain that some agent's determination of what constitutes a valid vote will strip individual votes of determinative power, since the criteria used for determining validity are themselves outcome-determinative.

Similarly, in a state with a predicted 60-40 spread, the failure of roughly one third of the 60% to vote, coupled with the near-unanimous voting of the 40%, could in fact cause the outcome to go for the minority. In that event, though, it is not one vote that makes the difference; it is the votes of the 20% of expected voters that didn't vote.

You and I agree, I think, that it is an important duty for each of us to vote, and that if we don't, bad things will happen. That's not my point (as I pointed out, I have no point). I am just noting that from a sort of "rational actor" standpoint, an individual voter would be entirely correct to assume that his individual vote has no determinative power unless combined with the votes of a majority of her fellow citizens, which leads to a sort of rational voter apathy.

5:49 PM  
Blogger ryan bradley said...

It is very bizarre to see Matthews disagreeing with themselves.

1:35 PM  

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