This election day, do yourself and your country a favor and stay home (or in lab).
Your vote doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. You can do the math yourself — imagine a close House race in which each voter has a 51 percent chance of voting for one candidate, 49 percent for another, and around 300,000 voters are expected to turn out. What are the chances that the marginal vote matters, i.e. without your input, the race would split exactly 150,000 to 150,000?
If you answered, “about a twenty thousand times worse than winning the PowerBall Lottery three times in a row,” you’re in the ballpark. The chances are so low that most democracies do not even make contingency plans for the event of a tied vote, and when they do, they pick something appropriately absurd, such as flipping a coin to decide the winner.
Some claim that even if your vote doesn’t matter, we should vote because voting is symbolically important. Yet few of those who make this case would willingly cast their symbolic vote on a broken voting machine, suggesting that the perceived importance of voting is not tied to the act itself but its consequences.
Some claim that voting is a moral civic duty. But what is so moral about it? Giving blood is a moral duty — it adds more to the general welfare than it takes from the donor. But an individual’s vote, even assuming it is an objectively “correct” one, has such a minute probability of impacting the election that its value is virtually zero. Meanwhile, voting is not free — even ignoring the cost of the voting machines, ballots, transportation costs, and so on, an individual who values his time cheaply (say $9/hour) and is able to cast his vote quickly (say 20 minutes of effort all told) is still losing $3 for a virtually zero chance of changing the outcome. If the ultimate goal is to elect a candidate you feel is superior, it would make more sense to purchase a lottery ticket and pledge the winnings to the candidate of your choice.
Some even trot out that old Kantian chestnut, “But if everyone didn’t vote...” But people do vote, and will not suddenly quit voting if you fail to go to the polls. And even if they did stop voting, who is to say that there shouldn’t be fewer Americans voting? Suppose one candidate is better than the other — wouldn’t the country be better off to some degree if the lesser candidate’s supporters didn’t turn out? More generally, let’s say a random selection of 99.99 percent of the voters who turned out to vote in the 2008 presidential race had stayed home — what would be the increased odds of the country “incorrectly” picking McCain over Obama (assuming, for simplicity, that the winner of the popular vote is the winner of the election)? With ~130 million voters turning out, McCain’s chances of winning were effectively zero. Wolfram Alpha put them at smaller than 1 in 10^150000 and gave up. With a mere 13,000 voters turning out, McCain’s chances rise to only 1 in 300,000,000,000,000,000.
Still not convinced the Kantian logic is being applied too simplistically? Consider military service. It’s a civic duty. But do we demand that every able-bodied person serve in the military because if nobody served we’d be defenseless? Taken to extremes, every civic virtue can become a vice, and the act of voting crossed the line into vice more than 100 million voters ago.
In short, your time as an MIT student is valuable. We need you to learn and research and become the next generation of American leadership. Our society demands that you not piddle away your time with frivolous exercises such as voting — to be properly melodramatic about it, squandering valuable resources such as yourselves would be an affront to those everywhere who are cold and are not clothed, who are hungry and are not fed. Do the right thing and stay away from the ballot box this November.