Voting in the presidential election is irrational, but voting for the lesser of two evils is the most irrational.
This reality is easy to discover. However, a quick look at the polls proves that most Americans have not figured it out. Thus, the current presidential election features two candidates with historically low favorability ratings, and one of them is all but certain to win on November 8 anyway. While the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary movements are quite robust, the #NeverEither movement has to yet to take hold. Why is that?
The answer, of course, is that we are all supposed to vote for the lesser of two evils, or LOSE (lesser of some evils).
This argument comes in various flavors, but we’ve all heard some version of it:
Why, you don’t want Hillary deciding on the next Supreme Court nominee, do you? Better vote for Donald Trump.
Did you hear what Donald Trump said about Muslims this week? Better vote for Hillary to stop him.
And so on.
In theory, LOSE voting is supposed to be the pragmatic decision. The starry-eyed idealists may be voting third party to find a candidate they generally agree with. But everyone knows that the adults need to make a responsible decision about which of the major party candidates is worse.
Given this framing, it’s worth asking question: Is LOSE voting really practical at all?
The answer is no. Let’s go through it.
Voting Is Irrational
Voting is irrational in the sense that it would fail a typical cost-benefit analysis.
The cost of voting consists of the incremental time it takes you to look into the issues (if any) and the time of actually voting, either in person or by mail. The benefit would consist of the expected value of one candidate winning rather than another. This is a rather difficult calculation because it requires one to know how a candidate will actually behave in office (as opposed to merely their campaign promises) and how any policies they promote would affect the voter. For direct subsidies or taxes, the policy impact could be straightforward. But for any more complicated policy, the voter would have to have a robust understanding of the policy and the underlying economics. Needless to say, this is not going to work for most voters.
Fortunately, we need not go into the minutiae of discerning the relative value of different politicians or policies. Because notice above we referred to the expected value. In statistics, this requires us to first determine the value of a given outcome (which as discussed, is likely to be painful), and then determine the probability of that outcome actually occurring. So as a simple example, if you make a bet that has a 40% of giving you $10, the expected value of it would 40% * $10 = $4.
The same logic would apply to voting. Except the probability we care about there isn’t the probability that the candidate you like will win, it’s the probability that your vote in particular will cause your preferred candidate to win. In the US presidential election, that means that 1) the overall electoral college vote must be close enough to depend on the electoral votes of your specific state, and 2) the margin of victory in your state was so small that your vote would flip the result.
The first requirement is improbable, and the second requirement is next to impossible. An election that fits both of these criteria is extraordinarily unlikely, and to my knowledge, has never actually occurred in US history. For simplicity, we can say the probability of your vote determining the election is effectively zero. And thus, the expected value of voting would also be essentially zero.
This means it would fail the usual cost-benefit analysis. It has actual costs, and is likely to yield no tangible benefits. The costs are likely to exceed the benefits, and in this sense, it is irrational.
Greater of Two Evils
This straightforward analysis creates an uphill battle for partisans who promote the LOSE concept.
No doubt, you’ve heard someone argue that a vote for Gary Johnson is really a vote for Hillary Clinton or that a vote for Jill Stein is really a vote for Donald Trump.
In either case, their argument is that you’re “wasting your vote” on a third party option. But this argument assumes that your vote could actually determine the outcome of the election in the first place. As discussed above, that is clearly absurd.
Most third party voters, as well as primary voters who support a fringe candidate, probably do not believe their candidate has any actual chance of winning. They might have a sliver of hope, but they won’t be putting money on it. Likewise, they would not believe their vote is actually going to decide the election. By contrast, the LOSE voter really thinks their vote might determine the next president; after all, that’s the premise makes them become a LOSE voter.
So we arrive at a delightful irony. The same third party voters that are routinely ridiculed for being unrealistic actually have a far more realistic understanding of their vote than the average LOSE voter.
What About Bush vs. Gore in 2000?
No discussion of LOSE voting is likely to be complete without addressing the close presidential election in 2000. Didn’t that prove that we can never vote for the third party candidate or else we’ll throw the election back to the dastardly Republicans?
Not so much.
The 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush all came down to the state of Florida. And as it happens, Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes, a tiny fraction of the roughly 6 million cast in the state. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader earned some 97,488 votes. If only a few more Green voters switched to Gore, he would have won.
It’s a fair point. But notice that it doesn’t change any of the conclusions of our earlier analysis. The election was still decided by 537 Florida votes. The only way a Floridian’s vote would have mattered, is if their personal voting decision would also swing 537 other friends to vote for their candidate as well (or half that amount, if they were all Bush supporters). Unless they happened to lead a small cult, that’s pretty unlikely. Local pundits or news outlet endorsements might have that kind of impact. The political musings of a random citizen probably do not.
The 2000 election ends up being a losing argument for LOSE voting.
None of this means that you should not vote. I choose to vote personally, but obviously that decision is entirely up to you.
The point is that if you do vote, you shouldn’t do it because you think it is actually going to determine the outcome of the current election. Don’t just vote for the lesser of two evils coughed up by the two major parties. If you’re going to vote, vote for the candidate you actually believe in. Or, since that probably won’t exist, vote for the one you disagree with least. Not too inspiring, but it’s the best we can do.
And if someone tries to shame you into voting in general or worse, voting for the lesser of two evils, you are now armed with a perfect one-word defense: Math.