I Stand By My Nonvoting Record

Meg Whitman shouldn’t apologize for not voting.

Meg Whitman.
Meg Whitman

When political candidates get criticized for their spotty voting records, it usually means they missed a few roll calls in the state house. Meg Whitman went a step further: She didn’t even go to the polls on Election Day.

This is the latest charge against the California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former CEO of eBay, who first registered to vote in 2002, despite being eligible since 1974, according to a recent report by the Sacramento Bee. Whitman had previously acknowledged failing to vote “on several occasions” but had not revealed quite how many. “[I]t’s surprising, and of some concern, that someone so seemingly uninterested in politics would suddenly want to govern what is perhaps the most ungovernable state in the union,” opined the Los Angeles Times.

Whitman has apologized profusely. “Every citizen should take time to vote, and on more than one occasion, I didn’t,” she told GOP activists at a state convention earlier this year. “Voting is a precious gift handed down by generations of Americans. I regret not having delivered my vote on several occasions.”

Whitman should save her breath: There is actually a good case for not voting.

Many economists have long argued that voting is, on the individual level, irrational. The main reason: Your vote does not matter. As statisticians love to point out, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning on the way to the polls than to have your vote actually decide the election. Steven E. Landsburg explained the numbers in Slate in the context of the 2004 presidential election:

Your individual vote will never matter unless the election in your state is within one vote of a dead-even tie. (And even then, it will matter only if your state tips the balance in the Electoral College.) What are the odds of that? Well, let’s suppose you live in Florida and that Florida’s 6 million voters are statistically evenly divided—meaning that each of them has (as far as you know) exactly a 50/50 chance of voting for either Bush or Kerry—the statistical equivalent of a coin toss. Then the probability you’ll break a tie is equal to the probability that exactly 3 million out of 6 million tosses will turn up heads. That’s about 1 in 3,100—roughly the same as the probability you’ll be murdered by your mother.

Turns out that’s an overestimate. Factor in the reality that no election’s likely outcome is exactly 50/50, plus the fact that California has many more voters than Florida, and you’ve got a probability so close to zero that, as Landsburg writes, you’re more likely to win the Powerball jackpot thousands of times over than to swing the election.

Most Americans bridle at this argument—even if only a bare majority of them actually vote. They see voting as a civic duty. If voting makes you happy, say economists, go for it. Just don’t pretend it’s going to make a difference. If missing work, driving to the polls, standing in line, and navigating the ballot stresses you out, you can guiltlessly skip it.

The other response tends to be: What if everyone thought that way? But everyone doesn’t think that way, and they’re not likely to start. For the sake of argument, say they did. Say everyone in the United States stayed home on Election Day. In that case, says economist Gordon Tullock, “I would vote.”

Whitman has an even more compelling reason not to vote: Until 2008, she was CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. She can influence the lives of Americans a lot more in an hour of work at her desk than in an hour spent at the polls—not to mention the time it takes to become a truly informed voter. “Perhaps society’s best choice is for her to keep working and let the other people go vote,” says economist Alexander Tabarrok of George Mason University. “That could quite possibly be optimal.” Considering her other platforms—speeches, letters to the editor, meetings with other executives and politicians—voting is probably near the bottom of the list of ways she can influence public debate.

As a free marketer, Whitman is in an especially good position to make the case against voting. Free marketers like to argue that following your own self-interest leads to a maximally efficient outcome for society. Well, clearly not voting was at the time in Whitman’s self-interest. (Or, for that matter, in any voter’s self-interest.) Otherwise, she would have done it.

Of course, no politician would ever come out against voting. That would be like a CEO coming out against bonuses. Nor can Whitman argue that she was taking a principled stand and say she didn’t vote because she wasn’t sufficiently well-informed. That’s no way to get elected, either.

But does she have to apologize? What Whitman should have done, says Tabarrok, is simple: not vote, and pay someone else who would have voted for a Democrat not to vote, too. That way, she could say she saved society resources—twice over!—without affecting the outcome of the election. If that didn’t work? There’s always selling her vote on eBay.