The Paradox of Voting and the Ethics of Political Representation

Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 272-306, 2010

35 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2010 Last revised: 9 Sep 2011

See all articles by Alexander A. Guerrero

Alexander A. Guerrero

Rutgers University, New Brunswick - Department of Philosophy

Date Written: July 14, 2010


It is often claimed that voting is irrational. This article argues that this claim is false. That voting is irrational seems to follow from rational choice models which highlight (a) that voting has costs for each voter (time, transportation, etc.), and (b) that the likelihood that any voter’s vote will be pivotal in favor of her preferred candidate is incredibly small. For any individual voter, voting seems an unwise investment: taking on the costs associated with voting for the incredibly small chance that she will affect the outcome of the election. This gives rise to a “paradox” of voting. These two compound propositions both seem true but also seem incompatible with each other:

P1: (a) individuals have a reason to vote that is based on the difference their vote might make to the electoral outcome, and (b) it is often reasonable for individuals to vote for this reason

P2: (a) for any individual voter, there is only a very small chance that her vote will make a difference to the electoral outcome; and (b) the chance is so small that it would not be reasonable to vote for this reason

I present a solution which rejects (P2). Rather than focus just on who gets elected, we do and should also care about how they get elected. The account developed in this paper highlights that each of us, each individual voter and non-voter, makes a difference through our voting behavior this feature of the electoral outcome: the strength of the elected representative’s manifest normative mandate. I argue that, if one supports a candidate, it is often rational to vote for that candidate because doing so contributes to the strength of the candidate’s manifest normative mandate. Increasing the strength of a candidate’s manifest normative mandate is worth caring about, if one supports that candidate, because representatives are more morally justified in acting as trustees, rather than as delegates, as their manifest normative mandate increases. If one supports a candidate, one ought to want that candidate to be morally justified in acting as a trustee. Therefore, if one supports a candidate, it will generally be rational for one to vote for that candidate.

The article presents the normative mandate account of voting, explains how the account works, and explains why individual voters would be rational in caring about strengthening – even by just one vote – the manifest normative mandate of those candidates whom they support. Along the way, I will also show how this account provides a resolution of what has been called “the central classic controversy in the literature of political representation.” The central controversy: “should (must) a representative do what his constituents want . . . or should (must) he be free to act as seems best to him in pursuit of their welfare?” As I will argue, the answer to this question will vary depending on the strength of a representative’s manifest normative mandate.

Keywords: Democratic theory, rationality of voting, political philosophy, political representation

Suggested Citation

Guerrero, Alexander A., The Paradox of Voting and the Ethics of Political Representation (July 14, 2010). Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 272-306, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Alexander A. Guerrero (Contact Author)

Rutgers University, New Brunswick - Department of Philosophy ( email )

New Brunswick, NJ
United States


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