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Meehl: The selfish voter paradox and the thrown-away vote argument

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Meehl. 1977. The selfish voter paradox and the thrown-away vote argument. APSR 71.

In Brief

Two voters engage in a Socratic dialogue over what universal principal could be agreed upon which would induce a rational person to vote. The voters are Standard Old Party (SOP) is from one of the two main parties that stands a chance of winning, and Flat Earth Vegetarian (FEV) is from a marginal third party (which loses in a two-party system). Meehl speaks through FEV, just as Plato speaks through Socrates in the Republic, to develop an ethico-political premise upon which a person would vote. Through dialogue with SOP, four principals are derived and argued to be essential for getting persons of either party (or any voter who is rational) to the polls. The ethico-political premise must be: 1) axionomic, 2) sociotropic, 3) collective, and 4) neutrofactual. An ethical "pseudo-Kantian" premise (e.g. what one ought to do universally) and minimally other-regarding (sociotropic) standard must be engaged, which nevertheless does not depend upon one's action affecting the outcome (end). Further, one would only vote if doing so for a prospective outcome which is collective in nature.


  • Axionomic: More than just act-utilitarian. We act to affect the outcome, not just for act-contingent utility.
  • Sociotropic: Vote with an eye on more than just your own utility.
  • Collective:
  • Neutrofactual: ?

Claim (in a nutshell):

Voting must involve ethics. If "ethics is garbage" then either voting for a potentially successful candidate or voting for "not a chance in hell" candidate is irrational, since either way, you are "throwing away your vote." (Thus, the appeal by politicians and party activists to the "throwing away your vote" claim is fallacious and we should ignore it.) For voting 'not' to be irrational, then, we must satisfy the four elements of the ethico-political premise outlined above.


Meehl creatively argues that the act of voting itself, in a large democratic system, independent of the outcome, is equivalent to "throwing away one's vote" under economic definitions of rationality. Argues that political decisions do not have equivalent traits to economic decisions.

Comments and Criticisms=

  • Meehl dismisses the possibility that an individual's B could be big enough to matter by saying that even if p is marginally positive, the possibility of a miscount makes p absolutely 0: you have no guarantee that your vote will be counted. But is this really an issue? Couldn't a miscount instead affect my opponent's supporters, making more vote even more likely to be decisive? Thus, errors in vote counting wash out; they could either help or hurt the decisiveness of my vote.
  • I would have like to seem him engage more robustly in the debate over whether voters actually calculate, weigh the probability, and conceptualize probability of their vote being decisive into their decision to vote. Several alternative reasons postulated in the literature for voting (prodding by elites, social norms to be seen at the voting booth, etc.) are not discussed (but not critical to his argument).
  • How can we test these claims empirically? Perhaps by randomized anonymous surveying of those who support "not a chance in hell" candidates.
  • This argument could be challenged with the "spoiler" claim. If Nader will spoil Gore's victory, then you shouldn't vote for him--this argument's logic seems to suggest that conclusion anyway.