Given that the outcome of an election will be the same whether one individual votes or not, what reason does that individual have to vote?

Obviously there is an extremely unlikely case where one vote will change the outcome.

As a group, the voters do have motivation to vote because they can collectively change the outcome. However, an individual's decision to vote or not vote this will not necessarily affect the choices of the rest of the group.

Edit: I'm interested in purely rational motivations. It's clearly rational for a group to vote but not so at an individual level. (leaving aside feeling pride or belongingness or pressure from others).

  • 5
    The Sorites paradox again. One vote doesn't matter. Fifty million votes matter. I agree that it's psychological. I'm a total political cynic, yet I always experience a sense of pride and belonging when I cast my meaningless vote. And I always vote, even in the off years. It's irrational.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 21:07
  • Here's a negative answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/4236/1582
    – DBK
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 3:39
  • 1
    Isn't it rational for individuals to apply pressure so the group they're in does the rational thing when in the absence of such pressure they'd fall victim to the tragedy of the commons? I'm not sure why you're rejecting this as part of the premise.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 19:43
  • It isn't rational to ask for purely rational motivations.
    – user2953
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 12:24
  • By asking "what reason" you are eluding the possibility that there is no reason. I never vote because it's pointless. The reasons are based on social views.
    – JSFDude
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 7:47

9 Answers 9


With Kantian point of view, we can say "Not voting is not universilizable", because if no-one voted, then the elections would not work and that would be a contradiction to the system itself.

Then, not voting is not an ethical behaviour, unless you want the system to fall.


Voters have social reasons to vote.

Depending on the country, these may be unambiguously rational as well. For instance, in Australia voting is mandatory and voting day is a national holiday. If you are already forced to vote, you may as well actually vote in your interest instead of against your interest or randomly.

There can still be social reasons without legal backing. In the United States, for instance, they very commonly give out "I voted" stickers at polling places, rendering it easy to tell when someone has voted (and wants others to know). This can serve as sort of a social contract: you will be chided by your friends if you don't vote, and your participation can be (weakly) verified. Thus, voting can be a way to maintain or enhance your social standing.

Finally, as humans aren't rational, it's easy to trick us into doing something that's good for the community even if it has no hope of benefiting us individually. We act as though our actions are taking place in an environment where we can build reputation and have many future reciprocal actions ahead of us, probably since throughout most of our evolutionary history, this was true. These days, with citizen/state or stranger/stranger interactions, it's much less true, but the instincts remain. So all you have to do is make voting seem like a noble thing to do and (many of) our brains will supply the requisite reward to us when we follow along and do it.

  • This doesn't meet the rational criteria in the question.
    – yters
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 21:00
  • @yters - The first two are rational; the last explains why it was rational to adopt a rule that leads one to vote if you don't have the perspective or cognitive resources to decide anew on the rationality of each action (c.f. rule utilitarianism vs. other flavors).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 21:28
  • 1
    No, neither of those first two are rational. The voting serves no intrinsic purpose, and could just as easily be swapped out with something like "eating cookies" or "hitting a clown".
    – yters
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 21:53
  • 1
    @yters - We are talking about why it is rational for an individual to vote. If the state says, "Vote or pay a fine", then it is rational to vote unless you would rather pay the fine. If your friends like displays of civic-minded behavior, and you benefit from the good graces of your friends, then it is rational to display civic-minded behavior. The same is true of the state mandating that you eat cookies or that your friends want you to (playfully) hit a clown. If you are not talking about individuals, "people voting" has very different implications than "people eating cookies".
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:56
  • If there is no intrinsic reason to vote, then a person can rationally also get around the system, or merely go through the motions without putting sensible effort into voting. Randomly checking a tick box, even though it conforms to a governments' and social expectations, cannot be said to truly be voting. Intrinsic reasons are the only reasons of interest. Everything else is show: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more. It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
    – yters
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 16:40

Here's an attempt at a rationalisation of voting for the individual:

1 If you choose not to vote once, you are significantly more likely to choose not to vote again. After all, you're unusual if you're in a western democracy and you are not at all disillusioned with politics and have nothing more enjoyable to do on polling day with your time.

Summary: Not voting leads to greater not voting in the future.

2 People tend to rationalise and defend their behaviour, so if you choose to not vote regularly, you are likely over time to come to believe that this is a good decision and become an advocate of not voting.

Summary: Habitual non-voting leads to advocating non-voting.

3 People are social creatures and much more heavily influenced by the norms of their peers and neighbours than they like to think. If you don't vote and advocate non-voting you are likely to strongly influence those you interact with, and most strongly affect those who normally share your opinions.

Summary: Your non-voting actions and views spread to people, and most strongly to people like you.

4 Politicians publicly advocate policies that are likely to garner large numbers of votes. If a group (eg people under 30 in the UK) vote significantly less often, parties use the money available to favour groups that vote in larger numbers (retired people vote in much greater numbers in the UK). There is thus a genuine but small risk that if your non-voting ideas spread amongst like-minded people, government policies will eventually disfavour people like you. The risk of non-minor future harm can be weighed against present inconvenience of voting. If the like-minded group we're discussing is thoughtful people, that could be quite devastating.

Summary: It's not worth risking disenfranchising the people with whom you have the most in common.

Overall summary

Humans are social and you don't act in isolation - you will influence people like you not to vote, and as a group you will become more disenfranchised. As an individual you can work towards or against group disenfranchisement, but are very unlikely to be neutral. Group disenfranchisement could lead to significant negative consequences for you as an individual.


That's not at all watertight, and the effects may be too slow to affect you in your lifetime. This sort of reasoning is much stronger to argue that you should attempt to befriend newspaper editors.

Rationality explains very little of human behaviour anyway. (I vote regularly, but not for any of these reasons.)

Nevertheless, this was an interesting question and a good challenge.


I suppose there are many reasons why individuals vote, including psychological and sociological reasons.

For example, an individual could perceive the act of voting as fulfilling a duty, or as validating his being a member in a community, etc, etc... probably as many reasons as there are neurons in a brain.

  • I'm really looking for purely rational reasons. I agree that people vote for psychological and sociological reasons but is there any cold hard logic that says a person should choose voting over abstaining?
    – Jake
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 22:54
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    I suppose it is at least as rational as buying a lottery ticket for the purpose of becoming rich.
    – nir
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 23:10

At the national level it doesn't really make a difference. However, at the local level it does, and the politicians selected at the local level can have a larger influence.

  • 1
    I'm sorry, I don't know about US politics and I don't want this question to become about any particular country. Do you mean that an individual voting or not is more likely to cause a change to the outcome in some situations? Is it just that we should care about the outcome of some elections more than others?
    – Jake
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 22:47
  • 5
    @Jake, He means that local elections feature smaller numbers of voters, so that my vote really does make a difference. If I live in a small town of 50 people, my vote matters more than if the town has 5 million people. Or 100 million potential voters as in the US.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 23:20
  • This doesn't really answer the question, it only states that there is no question in smaller groups.
    – user2953
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 7:50

The rational reason to vote is that it is one of a few ways one can influence governmental affairs. Rationality does not depend on the probability that the outcome of an election will be decided by one person's vote.


Because voting is what makes you an active and useful part of the society. In ancient Greece, people who had the right to take part in politics but chose not to where called "αχρείοι" (achreioi). It means the ones with no use, since they had no use in society. It was not punishable, but it was one of the worst values someone could have as a member of a society. You should read Plato's Republic for a description of the perfect society with justice.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. This is an interesting answer, but I'm curious how successfully it resolves the question. Surely someone who doesn't vote, but who engages in other political activities or plain charity is a useful part of society? Simply because Ancient Greece was a particular way does not make that the correct way. I'm also confused why you refer to the Republic, since Plato's aristocracy is decidedly undemocratic.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 2:07
  • Currently, the basic way for most people in most states to engage in politics is to vote. Of course, there are other ways, such as political interventions, but it is not the basic way of participating in the commons. I don't consider charity as a political activity, for example the church makes charities, but IMHO it is not a political activity.
    – Fotis
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 8:36
  • I refer to the Republic, since according to Plato, the perfect society needs the guards (I hope I'm using the correct translation, I have only read it in Greek) whose only duty is to participate in politics. As an analogue, the only way to reach a perfect society is for people with political rights to engage in politics. I do not consider it undemocratic, since any child can become a guard if it has the right qualifications. You can compare it to aristocracy, where only members of an aristocratic class would rule, and you entered this aristocratic class mostly by origin or wealth.
    – Fotis
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 8:41

In a country ruled by plutocrats, voting gives us little people the illusion of control. It gives the masses the illusion that there is someone is charge who takes care of their opinions, their wants and their needs.

"Voting" is a form of pacification that works by convincing people they have the power to get rid of poor leadership by coloring a little circle every few years, instead of starting a revolution, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did a couple of centures ago.

Politics in America is in a case which sadly requires attention. The system set up by our law and our usage doesn’t work,—or at least it can’t be depended on; it is made to work only by a most unreasonable expenditure of labor and pains. The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.

— Woodrow Wilson, 1912

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.

— Edward Bernays, 1920

Forget the politicians; they're irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They've long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls; they've got the judges in their back pockets; and they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They've got you by the balls.

— George Carlin, 2005

More people are discovering that the system is all rigged and voting is just pacification. I see elections as so much of a charade.

— Ron Paul, 2016


I am not familiar with other countries, but for me, in the USA, there are two reasons for voting. 1) voting facilitates my re-entry into the USA, and 2) my vote makes my party's influence stronger.

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