Jeff Jacoby

The odds that any single voter will actually determine how an election turns out are "very, very, very slim," wrote Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt in 2005, citing research that analyzed more than 56,000 congressional and state legislative elections sating back to 1898. Just eight of those elections were decided by a single vote – and only one of those eight was a contest for a US House seat. In a presidential election, the average voter's impact is even less significant. Even in so-called battleground states, the likelihood that any given voter's participation will affect the outcome is infinitesimal – and most of us don't live in battleground states. Americans who decide they have more important things to do with their time than cast a vote that won't make a difference anyway are probably right.

That's even truer for eligible voters who don't feel they know enough – or who don't care enough -- to cast an informed vote. That's not meant as a put-down. As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw points out, even reliable voters who never miss an election will often skip down-ballot races about which they have little or no information.

"In practice, this means that you are relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice," writes Mankiw, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. "But this can be perfectly rational. If you really don't know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision."

If that's the case when it comes to elections for registrar of deeds or county commissioner, why not in contests for state representative, US senator, or president? Like buying stocks or undergoing surgery, the election of government officials can have serious consequences. We don't hector Americans to make uninformed decisions about investments or medical treatment. What societal advantage is there in badgering people with no interest in candidates or elections to go to the polls anyway?

"But it's your civic duty to vote!"

No, it isn't. You have the right to vote, not a duty to do so. In much the same way, you have the right to worship freely, the right to express your views, the right to run for public office – but no obligation to do any of them. Just as freedom of religion encompasses the freedom to practice no religion, your freedom to vote for the candidate of your choice includes the freedom to vote for no candidate at all.

"I leave you with the words of my mom," said CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, wrapping up the final presidential debate in Boca Raton last week. "Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong." Great advice -- for those who feel that way. But there's nothing wrong with staying home for those who don't.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for