Paradox of voting

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This article is about the contention that an individual's vote will probably not affect the outcome. For the arguably irrational results that can arise in a collective choice among three or more alternatives, see Voting paradox.

The paradox of voting, also called Downs paradox, is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e., in an otherwise tied election) is minuscule compared to any realistic estimate of the private individual benefits of the different possible outcomes, the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs. The fact that people do vote is a problem for public choice theory, first observed by Anthony Downs.[1]


Alternative responses modify the postulate of egoistic rationality in various ways. For example, Brennan and Lomasky suggest that voters derive 'expressive' benefits from supporting particular candidates. However, this implies that voting choices are unlikely to reflect the self-interest of voters, as is normally assumed in public choice theory; that is, rational behavior is restricted to the instrumental as opposed to the intrinsic value of actions.

Some have hypothesized that voting is linked genetically with evolved behaviors such as cooperation. One study of identical and fraternal twins' voting patterns concluded that 60% of differences in turnout among twins can be accounted for by genetics, but another interpretation of this study put the figure at 40%.[2]

Another suggestion is that voters are rational but not fully egoistic. In this view voters have some altruism, and perceive a benefit if others (or perhaps only others like them) are benefited. They care about others, even if they care about themselves more. Since an election affects many others, it could still be rational to cast a vote with only a small chance of affecting the outcome. This view makes testable predictions: that close elections will see higher turnout, and that a candidate who made a secret promise to pay a given voter if they win would sway that voter's vote less in large and/or important elections than in small and/or unimportant ones.

The paradox appears to ignore the collateral benefits associated with voting, besides affecting the outcome of the vote. A voter may feel pride in having voted, especially for the first time. Researching who or what to vote for may increase the voter's political knowledge and community awareness, both of which may contribute to a general sense of civic duty. Even the exercise of walking to the polling station, if the voter chose to, would be beneficial assuming no other form of exercise was available.

The paradox assumes that the value of voting relies entirely on "casting the vote that tips the scale". This implies two conclusions:

  1. that in past elections when the margin of winning was greater than 1, no single vote had any value, because subtracting that one vote alone from the count would have had no effect on the outcome;
  2. in elections with an even number of voters voting, no single vote could possibly have any value.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Downs, A. (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy, Harper and Row, N.Y., 1957.
  2. ^ Scientific American (2007-10-14). "The Genetics of Politics: Scientific American". Retrieved 2010-10-11.