The idea this week: the cynical case against voting and getting involved in politics doesn’t hold up.

Does your vote matter? Around half of the world’s population is expected to see national elections this year, and voters in places like Taiwan, India, and Mexico have already gone to the polls. The UK and France both recently scheduled elections.

And of course, the 2024 US national election campaigns are off and running, with control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House in contention — as well as many state houses, governorships, and other important offices.

Sometimes people think that their vote doesn’t matter because they’re just a drop in the ocean.

But my colleague Rob has explored the research on this topic, and he concluded that voting can actually be a surprisingly impactful way to spend your time. So it’s not just your civic duty — it can also be a big opportunity to influence the world for the better.

That’s because, while the chance your vote will change the outcome of an election is small, it can still matter a lot given the massive impact governments can have.

To take a simple model: if the US government discretionary spending is $6.4 trillion over four years, and you have a 1 in 10 million chance of changing the outcome of the national election, then in expectation you have some degree of influence over $640,000 of government spending. When this is true, it’s hard to justify not taking an hour of your time to vote, and maybe several more hours to inform yourself about which candidates’ policies are better.

Even just a small chance of making a really big difference is a huge deal.

So Rob concluded that voting often is worth your time, as long as the following conditions hold:

  1. There are important issues at stake in the election, such as the allocation of large amounts of money or the foreign policy of a country with a large military.
  2. One candidate is substantially better than the other(s), and you’re in a position to know which one that is.
  3. The election is somewhat competitive, and you’re able to vote in a competitive place, such as a “swing state.”

And your vote can make a difference even when it doesn’t determine the outcome. Politicians in democracies respond to their margins of victory. If you help your preferred candidate win by a large margin, they may feel empowered to pursue the agenda you favour more aggressively. And if you reduce the margin by which a politician wins, then they may be more incentivised to moderate their positions.

That said, the conditions above don’t always hold! In fact, Rob told me: “I don’t think it’s important for me to vote in this UK election, because I’m in an incredibly non-competitive constituency.”

You can read more about the argument and nuances in the full article, which Rob wrote in 2020 — though I think it holds up equally well today.

The argument also suggests that careers in politics offer huge opportunities for impact, because you can increase the chance that enormous government budgets and influence are productively used on pressing world problems.

We’ve written a lot about how you can use a career in politics for good. We recommend our articles on:

So even though we focus on careers, it’s always good to remember that your work isn’t the only way to have a positive impact. For some people, voting — or otherwise participating in politics — also looks like a shockingly good use of your spare time!

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