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Update: I voted this morning in exactly 12.72 seconds. This works out to an hourly rate of $1,129.81 using the equation below.
Voting calculus rarely yields answers that stoke the fires of democraphiles’ hearts and more often throws a quenching bucket of cold water on young Americans taking their first trek to the voting booth. As noted in the abstract of a 2012 Economic Inquiry article by Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin, “On average, a voter in America had a 1 in 60 million chance of being decisive in the (2008) presidential election.”
The debate over the rationality of voting in national elections has produced ardent non-voters, as embodied by Katherine Mangu-Ward in her 2012 article for Reason, and passionate defenders of the rationality of voting, such as S.M. in their 2012 article for The Economist. More important to UT students, however, the debate has also produced a general purpose tool that can be applied to any election: an expression of vote utility.
Though the general equation predates their 1993 book Decision and Democracy: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference, Mangu-Ward credits Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan with the form of the expression used in this article. The expression, as she cites it, is, “the expected utility of a vote is a function of the probability that the vote will be decisive, delivering gains (to the individual or society as a whole) if the preferred candidate wins.” This can be shown as:
As Lomasky and Geoffrey note, yield can be thought of in terms of gains to the individual or society. In this discussion I will be using gains to society, i.e. gains to the student body. The reason for this is that the student services provided by UT Student Government are, in theory, open to all students and thus a student could potentially maximize his gain so that it approaches the total gain to the student body. In other words, a student could potentially participate in all of the clubs that benefit from SG and receive gain from all of the agencies that SG funds. Reality, of course, is far from theory and this assumption is a necessary simplification.
So what, then, is the utility of your vote in the upcoming executive alliance election?
First, some data. SG’s budget in 2017-2018 was $112,820. I will assume that money represents the total gain to students, an assumption I will challenge later in the article. In the second go at electing an executive alliance, 12,491 UT undergraduate and graduate students participated. Assuming similar numbers for the upcoming election and with the candidate pool down to two, the probability your vote will be decisive is one in 12,491. Terrible roulette odds, especially if playing the Russian variant, but incredible compared to the one in 60 million of the 2008 presidential election. Thus the expression of the expected vote utility for this election is:
Wow. A whole $9.03, incredible. This reaction is warranted when taken out of the context of what it costs to vote in SG elections. While it is true that the expected net yield under this simplified view is paltry, when considering how easy it is to vote, the yield becomes compelling.
Assume that it takes you two minutes to vote for your preferred candidate. The utility of your vote then expressed as an hourly wage is:
Even in a Berniecrat utopia, $270.90/hr represents an incredibly high yield activity for a student worker. For a UT student, $270.90 will pay for a whopping 64.5 percent of the $420 — isn’t life poetic sometimes? — tuition increase through 2020. For a speed voter clocking in at 30 seconds, the hourly yield increases to $1,083.60/hr.
Heartening though it may be, this simplified view is not an accurate account of the actual gains to students from SG. In reality, much of SG’s budget — 52.26 percent — goes to pay operating expenses, tuition allotments for the president, stipends for the executive board, and other administrative costs.
The arguments for these high administrative costs, most of which consist of stipends, are that they allow students of any income to run for the highest positions in SG and that they facilitate SG in allocating its remaining resources more efficiently. While interesting, such arguments are impertinent to the vote calculus of the upcoming election.
With the $58,960 of administrative costs subtracted out, the total gains to students, represented by funds to student organizations, SG agencies, and special projects, stands at $53,860. Under the assumption that spending remains relatively unchanged, the new expression of the expected vote utility is:
Using the same calculations as above, the hourly rate for a voter taking two minutes to vote is $129.30/hr. Not quite as high, but still prodigious relative to most other wage earning activities available to UT students.
While the numbers here are impressive, the graphic at the beginning of this article remarks that your vote actually matters . . . potentially. The gain to students from SG is dependent on how the money is spent. If spent effectively, the utility of your vote could potentially exceed the figures above. If frittered away on unnecessary expenses, the numbers could dip into “not worth my time” territory. Still, as it stands, it is probably worth the two minutes to go vote in the upcoming executive alliance election.