Portuguese presidential elections are going to happen soon and this lead me to reflect (again) on the value of voting and of being engaged with national politics.

I have an aversion of having to keep up with what’s new on national news in general and national politics in particular - things move so fast that keeping up with it would be too stressful. But with the presidential elections coming in, I felt motivated to be an exemplar citizen and do a thorough research about all the candidates so that I could make an informed decision on who to vote for. And then publicly share everything in a blog post!

Yeah, that didn’t happen, for a number of reasons. But a lot went through my mind while struggling to do it.

Your vote is useless

First of all, it’s hard to shake the felling that the chance of your vote swinging an election is pretty much 0%. You’re spending all this time and energy doing complicated research, and for what? Even if you end up making the best possible decision on who to vote for, all your work has 0 impact. 

In an 80000 Hours article, Robert Wiblin uses expected value calculations to argue that it’s worth to vote. But since I know that I’m not going to swing an election (like I know that I’m not going to win the lottery) I feel I would be a victim of Pascal’s mugging if I accepted those arguments.¹

Having said this, if you have an audience (i.e. you have a popular blog, podcast, etc), you sharing your research and opinion might influence other people to vote in the same way as you do, making the resources spent on research a little more worth it. But then there’s the fact that your audience probably already has views aligned with yours: that’s why they’re your audience. But I agree that this line of argument has value, and if you’re going to do the research, might as well share it.

Actually, probably most of what you can do related with political activism (volunteer to help candidates, write to your local newspaper, etc) has a lot of more influence than voting.

Decision process can be really complex

I realized that I probably arrived at a point where I am pretty non-tribal regarding politics. I sympathize and understand many political positions, and my views depend on the issue at hand, sometimes leaning right, sometimes left.

They told me this is a good thing.

Well, when you trying to pick one candidate to vote for, it only causes a bunch of decision anxiety! It becomes not obvious on who to vote for.

I see each presidential candidate as a point in a giant multidimensional space of future political decisions that the candidate will have to deal with if they become elected. This, in contrast with the extreme of each candidate being a point in a uni-dimensional line that goes from right-wing to left-wing.

In the latter model, things are easy. If you are moderately right-wing, you just vote on the “most moderate” right-wing candidate.

But the complexity of the former model is huge. I don’t even know my position on issues before I reflect a lot on them. Even if I knew it, I would still have to deal with the extra complexity of having to weight each issue in relation to all others. Basically, how do I compare the points in that multidimensional space?

If you believe some issues are a lot more important than others, you might focus only on the candidate’s views on those issues. This seems to me to make sense. Personally, I think the most important issues are those related with the far future. Unfortunately, candidates don’t tend to talk about those. One exception now is pandemics: candidates will probably have some kind of opinion about issues related to that.²

Voting as signaling (or: Why I still vote)

It’s my impression that voting has a strong signaling value: at least in some groups, voting is a signal that you’re a good citizen, and you gain points in your community of you said you vote.

That’s the reason why I still vote, even if only to cast a blank. It doesn’t cost that much and I really don’t want to go through the hassle of justifying myself to my friends and family why I’m not an horrible person for not voting. I might even talk with them about all I’ve covered in this post; the fact that I voted might probably even make them more receptacle to my arguments.

And since I’m voting, if it’s not too costly for me to get to know the candidates, if there’s some obvious best candidate, I’ll vote for them (even knowing that my vote it’s not going to change anything). If the decision seems hopeless, I’ll cast a blank vote.

I also like to at least know a little bit about national politics so that I can better understand discussions that I happen to listen to/participate in. It can also be fun to discuss politics with light-hearted friends, and that’s pretty valuable. 

Much more than voting. :)

1 - I suspect this is pointing at the same issue that Ergodicity Economics does for investing?
2 - I might e-mail all the candidates for the upcoming presidential elections to ask about this.