How much is your vote worth?

Tyler Cowen writes:

If it were legal, and you tried to sell your vote and your vote alone, you might not get much more than 0.3 cents.

It depends where you live.

If you’re not voting in any close elections, then the value of your vote is indeed close to zero. For example, I am a resident of New York. Suppose someone could pay me $X to switch my vote (or, equivalently, pay me $X/2 to not vote, or, equivalently, pay a nonvoter $X/2 to vote in a desired direction) in the general election for president. Who’d want to do that? There’s not much reason at all, except possibly for a winning candidate who’d like the public relations value of winning by an even larger margin, or for a losing candidate who’d like to lose by a bit less, to look like a more credible candidate next time, or maybe for some organization that would like to see voter turnout reach some symbolic threshold such as 50% or 60%.

If you’re living in a district with a close election, the story is quite different, as Edlin, Kaplan, and I discussed in our paper. In some recent presidential elections, we’ve estimated the ex ante probability of your vote being decisive in the national election (that is, decisive in your state, and, conditional on that, your state being decisive in the electoral college) as being approximately 1 in a million in swing states.

Suppose you live in one of those states? Then, how much would someone pay for your vote, if it were legal and moral to do so? I’m pretty sure there are people out there who would pay a lot more than 0.3 cents. If a political party or organization would drop, say, $100M to determine the outcome of the election, then it would be worth $10 to switch one person’s vote in one of those swing states.

We can also talk about this empirically. Campaigns do spend money to flip people’s votes and to get voters to turn out. They spend a lot more than 0.3 cents per voter. Now, sure, not all this is for the immediate goal of winning the election right now: for example, some of it is to get people to become regular voters, in anticipation of the time when their vote will make a difference. There’s a difference between encouraging people to turn out and vote (which is about establishing an attitude and a regular behavior) and paying for a single vote with no expectation of future loyalty. That said, even a one-time single vote should be worth a lot more than $0.03 to a campaign in a swing state.

tl;dr. Voting matters. Your vote is, in expectation, worth something real.

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