BOHANON AND CUROTT: Let’s be informed voters, but shaping outcome unlikely

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Economic Analysis by Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottIt’s that time of year when all good citizens are supposed to do their duty and go to the polls and vote. And duty it is because, on a strictly cost-benefit basis, it makes no sense to be an informed voter. Let us explain.

Consider the atypical voter who takes voting seriously. He discerns little difference between the two or more candidates up for his party’s nomination. Maybe there is a difference—heaven knows the avalanche of ads by the candidates tries to make him think there is—but he is savvy enough to know slick campaign ads give little to no reliable information about the comparative worth of the contenders.

So, our stellar citizen invests an enormous amount of time and resources carefully and judiciously discerning the real differences between the candidates. Let’s suppose that, after careful reflection, he determines candidate X is worth $10,000 more to him than alternatives Y and Z and dutifully goes to the polls and votes for X.

What are the odds his vote will be decisive in the election? In the 2010 Indiana GOP Senate primary, approximately 500,000 votes were cast. So, let’s say the odds of any single person’s vote changing the outcome are, quite generously, 1 in 500,000. What’s the expected value of a $10,000 gain at a one-in-half-a-million chance of making a difference? Two cents. Or, put another way, there is little payoff to being a dutiful voter.

If your candidate wins, your vote didn’t put him over the top; if he loses, your vote would not have made a difference in any case. Social scientists have known this dirty little secret for generations. The late B.F. Skinner noted way back in the 1950s that a voter is more likely to die in an automobile accident on the way to the polls than to cast the deciding vote in an election.

Don’t get us wrong: We should all be dutiful voters, but we suspect that many of us are not. It is no surprise that campaign rhetoric is nasty, brutish and short on the facts and issues. It is easier to rile up folks by portraying your opponent as a devil than by delivering carefully crafted positions on important issues.

In the final analysis, voting isn’t about dollars and cents; it is about duty. So, if you vote, know what you are doing. If not, don’t vote. Casting an uninformed vote is not good citizenship.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to

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