The Value of a Vote

More, and less, than you think.

Sometimes you think that polls couldn't get sillier or more unreal.  And then one comes along which make you sit up and take notice.

A survey of students attending New York University revealed the value they place on their right to vote.  66% of them would waive that privilege in the 2008 election in exchange for a year's free tuition, somewhere around $30,000.  20% placed a much lower value: they'd stay home for a new iPod Nano, worth a couple hundred bucks.  What's more, full half of the students were willing to sacrifice their vote for the rest of their lives, for $1 million.

Now, there are a couple of ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, some pundits are appalled that people would place such a low monetary value on a constitutional right paid for with the blood of patriots over centuries.

On the other hand, the survey's authors seemed impressed that the students placed such a high value on the vote - after all, $1 million is a fair bit of change, particularly to a college student, and if wisely invested, could ensure a leisurely life of ease and comfort forever.

There are various ways economists use to calculate the value of a human life, but one number given is around $1.54 million.  On this measure, the students are, indeed, placing a very high value on their right to vote.  Over the years, around 1,300,000 soldiers have given their lives in American service.  There are perhaps 220 million Americans of voting age, so one soldier has died for every 170 voters or so.  By life valuation, that's not quite $10,000 per vote - but half of the students wouldn't accept even a full million in exchange.

But can you really put a price on a lifetime of voting?  Maybe it makes more sense to consider just one election.  Buying votes in an election is pretty cheap - the Democratic party chairman in St. Louis was convicted of buying votes in the 2004 election.  He paid in cash, cigarettes, and liquor to the value of about $5.  Yet 20% of the students demanded $150 worth of toys, and the rest wanted more - much more, in the case of those who held out for the free tuition.

The election would have been fairer had it not been corrupted by the people who sold their votes to the Democrats for $5; and one can argue the same of the students who'd give it up for an iPod - we're well rid of the vote of someone who thinks so little of elections.

Then, there's the question of whether your vote counts.  In one sense, it's minimal - the odds that the election will be so very close that your personal vote will decide it are vanishingly small, even if you live in Florida.  Elections that are that close tend to be decided by other factors anyway.

What we are seeing is Adam Smith at work.  Individuals place a value on something that is theirs, and decide freely what it's worth.  And that's really the key to this whole issue and the reason we should be cheered by this report - the students are so confident in their right to vote, and have so little doubt that they might lose it, that they are actually able to reason about it in this way.  Of course, we'll ignore the iPod percentage and assume that group is just bad at math.

It's human nature that, the more likely we are to lose a thing, the more tightly we cling to it.  And something we don't have that we think we ought to have entices us even more.  We recall the look of pride on the face of the ex-slave as he casts his very first vote in the famous etching, and we think of the struggles of the civil rights era to ensure that right's continuance.  The protesters in Selma could have been offered the world in exchange for going home, and they would have carried on regardless; and rightly so, because their natural rights were being refused to them.

The responses of the students are a sign for optimism in two ways.  First, because the values they place on their franchise are mostly very high indeed, compared to the direct value they will likely attain thereby.  And second, because the fact that they can face and make this choice, illustrates their confidence in our system - that voting is their choice, which nobody else can or will successfully deprive them of without their consent.

It may seem strange to think that in fighting for the right to vote, our forefathers also implicitly fought for the right to not vote.  But in a very powerful way, the ability to make that second choice shows the strength of the American way, in a fashion that a large turnout never could.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

Good article. It's really sad to me, though, that college students would consider giving up their right to vote for ANYTHING.

November 16, 2007 11:06 AM
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