African Liberty Essay Competition 2012 Electoral Votes

Wearing an “I Voted” sticker on Election Day announces that you are a proud participant in the grand tradition of representative democracy, the worst system except all the others. It says “I care,” “I’m informed,” and perhaps also “this shirt is machine washable.” 

On that day (November 6! Mark your calendars!), when Americans are resting from their quadrennial labors of locating a polling place, standing in line, and pushing buttons, pulling levers, filling bubbles, or poking a touch screen, there is a surefire way to start a fight in any bar, church, or bus in the country. Three little words: I don’t vote.

Voting is widely thought to be one of the most important things a person can do. But the reasons people give for why they vote (and why everyone else should too) are flawed, unconvincing, and sometimes even dangerous. The case for voting relies on factual errors, misunderstandings about the duties of citizenship, and overinflated perceptions of self-worth. There are some good reasons for some people to vote some of the time. But there are a lot more bad reasons to vote, and the bad ones are more popular. 

‘Every Vote Counts’

Let’s start with the basics: Your vote will almost certainly not determine the outcome of any public election. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories regarding rigged elections or malfunctioning voting machines—although both of those things have happened and will happen again. I’m not talking about swing states or Supreme Court power grabs or the weirdness of the Electoral College. I’m talking about pure, raw math.

In all of American history, a single vote has never determined the outcome of a presidential election. And there are precious few examples of any other elections decided by a single vote. A 2001 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. Of the 40,000 state legislative elections they examined, encompassing about 1 billion votes cast, only seven were decided by a single vote (two were tied). A 1910 Buffalo contest was the lone single-vote victory in a century’s worth of congressional races. In four of the 10 ultra-close campaigns flagged in the paper, further research by the authors turned up evidence that subsequent recounts unearthed margins larger than the official record initially suggested. 

The numbers just get more ridiculous from there. In a 2012 Economic Inquiry article, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman, statistician Nate Silver, and University of California, Berkeley, economist Aaron Edlin use poll results from the 2008 election cycle to calculate that the chance of a randomly selected vote determining the outcome of a presidential election is about one in 60 million. In a couple of key states, the chance that a random vote will be decisive creeps closer to one in 10 million, which drags voters into the dubious company of people gunning for the Mega-Lotto jackpot. The authors optimistically suggest that even with those terrible odds, you may still choose to vote because “the payoff is the chance to change national policy and improve (one hopes) the lives of hundreds of millions, compared to the alternative if the other candidate were to win.” But how big does that payoff have to be to make voting worthwhile?

‘Voting Is an Investment in the Future’

If you ask a man on the street why rich people are more likely to vote for Republicans, he will probably tell you a story about how the GOP promotes policies that favor businesses and lower the tax burden of the wealthiest people in society. But your sidewalk interlocutor is wrong on two counts. First, rich people are not more likely to vote Republican. (It was a trick question.) Second, study after study, poll after poll, finds that people do not typically vote in ways that align with their personal material interests. The old, for instance, don’t support Social Security in higher numbers than the young. 

In their seminal 1993 book Decision and Democracy: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press), University of Virginia philosopher and reason Contributing Editor Loren Lomasky and his co-author, Geoffrey Brennan, offer an alternative theory of what drives voters. But first they offer a methodology for calculating the value of a vote. On their account, 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. The probability of casting the decisive vote decreases slowly as the size of the voting pool gets larger, but it drops dramatically when polls show that one candidate has even a slight lead. Which means that in a presidential election, where the number of voters is about 120 million and one candidate is usually polling a point or two ahead on Election Day, you’re screwed.

In his brilliant 2011 book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press), on which I have relied heavily for this article, Georgetown University philosopher Jason Brennan (no relation to Geoffrey Brennan) applied the Lomasky/Brennan method to a hypothetical scenario in which the victory of one candidate would produce additional GDP growth of 0.25 percent in one year. Assuming a very close election where that candidate is leading in the polls only slightly and a random voter has a 50.5 percent chance of casting a ballot for her, the expected value of a vote for that candidate is $4.77 x 10 to the −2,650th power. That’s 2,648 orders of magnitude less than a penny. 

It’s not hard to beat that offer. Say you plan to sleep for an extra hour instead of voting. Unless you are astonishingly well rested, an hour of sleep is almost certainly worth more to you than an infinitesimal fragment of a penny. Or say you plan to use that time to write an election-related blog post. The expected social payoff of even the lowest-traffic blog post is higher than the payoff from voting. In fact, an alternative activity plan isn’t even necessary: Simply not driving to the polls slightly reduces the chance that you or someone else will die in a car accident on Election Day, which is worth more than your vote can ever hope to be.

Those figures reflect 2006 GDP figures and 2004 voting totals, but it almost doesn’t matter what batch of reasonable numbers you plug into the equation. Say you think victory is worth 10 or 100 or 1,000 times more than the roughly $33 billion that 0.25 percent of GDP amounts to. Say the polls show a gap of two percentage points between the candidates. In any plausible scenario, the expected utility of your vote still amounts to approximately bupkes. A vote for a third-party candidate pushes the figure into even more infinitesimal territory.

Voters know this on some level. If they truly believed that each person’s vote could be the vote, imagine how they would treat people who disagree with them in early November. Voter suppression happens occasionally, of course. Unscrupulous actors send out flyers that give the wrong date for Election Day or mislead voters about the correct polling place. But if people were operating on the theory that your vote actually counts, far dirtier tricks would be happening everywhere, every day.

‘Voting Is a Civic Duty’

No individual vote is likely to determine the outcome of an election; nor is it likely to result in a material gain for the voter. Does that mean people who vote are irrational, evil, or stupid? Not necessarily. Or at least not all of them. 

In October 2000, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw penned a column for Fortune called “Why Some People Shouldn’t Vote.” During his years-long stint as a columnist for the magazine, this was the only article the editors refused to run. The column, which he published on his personal blog years later, suggests that “the next time a friend of yours tells you he’s not voting, don’t try to change his mind.” 

Mankiw’s argument draws on a 1996 article by economists Timothy Feddersen of Northwestern University and Wolfgang Pesendorfer of Princeton University that cites the phenomenon of “roll off”—people who make it all the way inside the polyester curtains on Election Day and then leave some blanks on their ballots—to illustrate the point that people who believe themselves ill-informed routinely choose not to vote, thereby increasing the quality of voters who actually pull the lever for one side or the other. There is some additional evidence for this claim: Education is one of the two best predictors of voter turnout (the other is age). Better-educated people are much more likely to vote, which suggests that the pool of voters is better informed and more qualified to make election-related judgments than the pool of nonvoters. 

What Is “Fundamental”

October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018


Interesting physical systems can be described in a variety of languages. A cell, for example, might be understood in terms for example of quantum or classical mechanics, of computation, or information processing, of biochemistry, of evolution and genetics, or of behavior and function. We often consider some of these descriptions “more fundamental” than other more “emergent” ones, and many physicists pride themselves on pursuing the most fundamental sets of rules. But what exactly does it mean?

Are “more fundamental” constituents physically smaller? Not always: if inflation is correct, quanta of the inflaton field are as large as the observable universe.

Are “less fundamental” things made out of “more fundamental” ones? Perhaps – but while a cell is indeed "made of" atoms, it is perhaps more so “made of" structural and genetic information that is part of a long historical and evolutionary process. Is that process more fundamental than the cell?

Does a “more fundamental” description uniquely specify a “less fundamental” one? Not in many cases: consider string theory, with its landscape of 10500 or more low-energy limits. And the same laws of statistical mechanics can apply to many types of statistically described constituents.

Is “more fundamental” more economical or elegant in terms of concepts or entities? Only sometimes: a computational description of a circuit may be much more elegant than a wavefunction one. And there are hints that even gravity, a paragon of elegance, may be revealed as a statistical description of something else.


Contest Timeline.

This contest is sponsored by The Fetzer Franklin Fund and by The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

The goals of the Foundational Questions Institute's Essay Contest (the "Contest") are to:
  • Encourage and support rigorous, innovative, and influential thinking about foundational questions in physics and cosmology;

  • Identify and reward top thinkers in foundational questions; and,

  • Provide an arena for discussion and exchange of ideas regarding foundational questions.

For examples of previous FQXi contests, please see the list to the left.




An expert panel of judges will be instructed (and general readers strongly encouraged) to rate the entries by the degree to which they are relevant and interesting, as more specifically described below, with 1/3 weight given to relevancy and 2/3 weight given to interest.
  • Relevant: The theme for this Essay Contest is: What Is "Fundamental"?

  • This contest does not ask for new proposals about what some “fundamental” constituents of the universe are. Rather, it addresses what “fundamental” means, and invites interesting and compelling explorations, from detailed worked examples through thoughtful rumination, of the different levels at which nature can be described, and the relations between them.

    While this topic is broad, successful essays will not use this breadth as an excuse to shoehorn in the author's pet topic, but will rather keep as their central focus the theme of the contest.

    Additionally, to be consonant with FQXi's scope and goals, essays should be sure to touch on issues in physics and cosmology, or closely related fields, such as astrophysics, biophysics, mathematics, complexity and emergence, and the philosophy of physics.

  • Interesting: An interesting essay is:

    • Original and Creative: Foremost, the intellectual content of the essay must push forward understanding of the topic in a fresh way or with new perspective. While the essay may or may not constitute original research, if the core ideas are largely contained in published works, those works should be the author's. At the same time, the entry should differ substantially from any previously published piece by the author.

    • Technically correct and rigorously argued, to the degree of a published work or grant proposal.

    • Well and clearly written, so that it is comprehensible and enjoyable to read.

    • Accessible to a diverse, well-educated but non-specialist audience, aiming in the range between the level of Scientific American and a review article in Science or Nature.




Applications will be accepted electronically through the form on FQXi's website, as follows:
  • ENTRY

    • Submission: Essays and accompanying material must be submitted online using the webform between the dates of October 28, 2017 and January 22, 2018 (until 11:59PM Eastern Time). Applicants must provide accurate contact information, an abstract of their essay, a brief biographical statement, and their essay.

      Immediately after an essay application is submitted, the applicant will receive an application confirmation email containing this information at their specified email address. This confirmation DOES NOT mean your essay has been accepted into the Contest; it simply notes that FQXi has received the submission.

      All essays will be reviewed for rule compliance (see "Publication" below) and those that are eligible will be posted online within 10 business days. Essays received on the deadline date will be posted in batches for up to 10 business days after the contest ends.

    • Please note: You will be required to register an email address with fqxi.org and set up an account to enter the Contest. This information is available on the application page.

    • Acceptability: In order to be judged, essays must at least satisfy minimal professional standards of acceptability for publication, both qualitative and quantitative.

    • Format & length: Essays must be submitted as PDF documents via the webform.

    • Eligible essays must comply with these guidelines:

      • The body of the essay may not exceed 25,000 characters (not including spaces). To ensure your submission fits the character count, you can use our online character counter.

      • The length of the body of the essay must not exceed 9 pages, including figures and equations, calculated based on a standard 8 ½ x 11 inch single-sided page with 1 inch margins.

      • The following can be appended to these 9 pages: one page of references, and up to two pages of technical endnotes. No essay text (such as textual footnotes), figures, notations, or equations can be included in the reference section. The technical endnotes are meant to provide an opportunity for additional technical detail while retaining a readable, accessible, and self-contained essay body; all essay reviewers, including the Expert Judges, will be encouraged to focus on the body of the essay, and use the endnotes only as a technical supplement to a self-contained work.

      • Color figures as well as hyperlinks within the document are acceptable.

      • Although FQXi will accept essays from anyone anywhere, the essay must be submitted in English.

    • Publication: After submission and review for rule compliance, each essay will be posted (within 10 business days) in the FQXi Community Forum, under the category 'Essay Contest: Wandering Towards a Goal’, along with each author name and bio. Thereafter, the author and interested readers (including FQXi Members, other contest entrants, and the general public) are invited to discuss and comment on the essay. (Although commenters will be rating the essays, the goal of the forum is to discuss the essays and the ideas they raise; thus commenters are strongly encouraged to cultivate a supportive atmosphere of scientific conversation rather than a judgmental atmosphere of critical scoring and evaluation.)

    • All comments in the Essay Contest Forum must abide by FQXi’s terms of use and appropriate content rules that can be found here.

  • JUDGING

    • Community evaluation: Every FQXi Member and approved Contest entrant will be provided with a code allowing them to rate essays as a 'Community evaluator', on a scale of 1-10 (10 being extremely relevant and interesting).

      A rating code will be provided to each entrant in the confirmation email. The confirmation code will be at the bottom of your confirmation email. If an essay is considered ineligible in the Contest, the rating code will not be active. Community ratings can be submitted until 11:59 pm Eastern Time, February 26, 2018.

      FQXi expects those providing community evaluations to do so based solely on the quality of the essay assessed. Voting collusion or bartering, mass down-voting, and other such forms of 'voter fraud' will not be tolerated, and participants in such will have (all) their votes discarded or in extreme cases their essays disqualified. Entrants should alert FQXi with information if they witness such activities.

    • Finalists: A minimum of 40 finalists (the "Finalists") will be determined once voting closes. A minimum of 30 finalists will be selected based on the following procedure:

      • Any entry with an author who is an FQXi Member at the time of submission will automatically become a Finalist ( an “auto-inducted entry”), if and only if the following criteria are met:

        • Their essay is eligible as per the Contest guidelines.
        • The Member author has rated 5 other entries and left a suitable comment or question in the online forum for each of the entries he/she has rated.
        • The total number of auto-inducted entries does not exceed 30.
      • In case Member entries exceed 30, the Member Finalists will consist of the 30 auto-inducted essays with the highest Community ratings that have each received at least ten ratings. Furthermore, if the auto-inducted Member entries exceed 15, FQXi will increase the number of Finalists to ensure that there is a fair representation of the top Community rated entries submitted by people who are not FQXi Members.
      • The remainder of a base set of 30 finalists will consist of the entries with top Community ratings that have each received at least ten ratings, not including any auto-inducted essays.
      • In addition to the base set of 30, the Expert Judges will select up to 10 additional entries, at their discretion, to form the full pool of Finalists.
    • Expert Judges: A panel of the applicants' peers, chosen by FQXi, will be asked to carefully review, deliberate upon, and rate the Finalists, based on the criteria specified under "Evaluation Criteria".

      This expert panel of judges will be confidential; their names will not be released, though they are free to post online comments just as any Community or Public evaluator.

    • Final Ranking: The final ranking that determines the First, Second, and Third prize winners will be determined by the Expert Judges using the Evaluation Criteria.

    • Discretionary Prizes:The Judges will also have the option to award any number of Discretionary Prizes to the Finalists chosen for peer review, up to a total amount of $10,000, chosen at their discretion.

    • Public evaluation: Members of the public will also be allowed to rate essays. Ratings from the public will be accepted until May 1, 2018.

      • Public evaluators will have to submit their email address in order to rate essays. As with the Community evaluator, each Public evaluator can enter one score, 1-10, per essay.

      • Prizes will not be awarded directly on the basis of Public ratings, but these ratings may influence either Community evaluations or Expert judging.

    • All decisions of the judges are final and the selection of Winners is at the sole and absolute discretion of FQXi.

  • PRIZES

    • In addition to the cash prizes listed below, all First and Second Prize Winners will receive a nomination for FQXi Membership, if the applicant is not already a Member. (These top Winners will then be vetted through FQXi's new Member nomination process to ensure they meet the basic qualifications for Membership.) Springer will consider adapted material from the winning essays for possible publication.

    • A total of $40,000 will be awarded. Prizes include:

      • First Prize: US$10,000

      • Second Prize: US$5,000 each

      • Third Prize: US$2,000 each

      • Fourth Prize: US$1,000 each

      • Judging Panel Discretionary Prizes: various amounts, not to exceed US$10,000 total




No purchase necessary to enter or win. A purchase does not increase your chance of winning.
  • ELIGIBILITY

    • The Contest is open to everybody except employees and consultants (including Contest judges) of the Sponsors (Fetzer Franklin Fund, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, Submit, and the Foundational Questions Institute) and each of their respective parents, subsidiaries, affiliates, advertising and promotion agencies (collectively, the "Contest Entities") and their family/household members (defined as parents, spouse, children, siblings, grandparents).

  • GUIDELINES

    • No person is allowed to submit more than one essay to the Contest, regardless if he or she is entering individually or as part of a collaborative essay. If more than one is uploaded, all except the first will be disqualified. (On the rare occasion when a replacement is requested by FQXi, this will be handled outside of the usual submission system.) Collaborative essays written by more than one person can be submitted. If such an entry is awarded a Prize, it will be split equally among the collaborators.

    • Sponsors reserve the right to cancel or modify this Contest in the event that an insufficient number of entries are received that meet the minimum judging criteria.

    • This Contest shall be construed in accordance with U.S. law. All Federal, state and local laws and regulations apply.

    • Essays complying with the rules and satisfying minimal relevance and quality criteria will be automatically posted on the FQXi Community Forum website together with authors' names; after Prizes are awarded, contest Winners will be highlighted as such. The Sponsors reserve no copyrights to the submitted work; however, by submitting an entry, the applicant hereby grants to the Sponsors a worldwide, royalty free license to so post the essay, as well as use the essay for internal and advertising, marketing and promotional purposes of the Contest, in perpetuity, in any and all media now known or hereafter invented.

    • By submitting an essay, entrant represents and warrants that the essay is entrant's own creation and is 100% original work; is not subject to, and does not infringe upon, the rights of any third parties, including without limitation, copyright, trademark or privacy or publicity rights; and is not defamatory, obscene or otherwise illegal.

    • Entrants not complying with these requirements will be subject to disqualification. All entrants must have a valid email address. In case of dispute as to identity of entrant, entry will be declared made by the authorized account holder of the email address submitted at time of entry. "Authorized Account Holder" is defined as the natural person who is assigned an email address by an Internet access provider, online service provider, or other organization (e.g., business, educational, institution, etc.) responsible for assigning email addresses or the domain associated with the submitted email address. Any other attempted form of entry is prohibited: no automatic, programmed, robotic or similar means of entry are permitted. The Contest Entities are not responsible for technical, hardware, software, telephone or other communications malfunctions, errors or failures of any kind, lost or unavailable network connections, website, Internet, or ISP unavailability, unauthorized human intervention, traffic congestion, incomplete or inaccurate capture of entry information (regardless of cause) or failed, incomplete, garbled, jumbled or delayed computer transmissions which may limit one's ability to enter this Contest, including any injury or damage to participant's or any other person's computer relating to or resulting from participating in this Contest or downloading any materials in this Contest.

    • All Prizes are subject to United States Income Tax. Winners are required to furnish FQXi with appropriate tax forms for reporting the Prize, and applicable taxes may be withheld from the Prize.

    • Void where prohibited by law. FQXi reserves the right to refuse to award any Prize if doing so violates any applicable laws.

    • By submitting an entry in the contest, the author agrees to release, defend and hold harmless the Contest Entities and each of their respective directors, officers, employees, agents, volunteers, the Contest judges, and their affiliates, heirs, successors and assigns from and against, and waive any right to pursue, any and all claims of any nature whatsoever arising out of or in connection with the Contest, the selection of Winners, and the use of the submitted essay, the author's name, and biographical information as authorized under these Contest rules.

    • All decisions of the judges are final and the selection of Winners is at the sole and absolute discretion of FQXi.

  • NOTIFICATION & ACCEPTANCE

    • Potential winners will be notified by e-mail on or about May 1, 2018, and may be required to execute and return an Affidavit of Eligibility/Release/Prize Acceptance Form within fourteen (14) days of attempted notification. Each participant selected as a potential winner must comply with all terms and conditions set forth in these Official Rules, and winning is contingent upon fulfilling all such requirements. If the winner cannot be contacted within seven (7) calendar days of first notification attempt, if prize or prize notification is returned as undeliverable, if winner rejects his/her prize or in the event of noncompliance with these Contest Official Rules, such prize will be forfeited and an alternate winner will be selected from all remaining eligible entries. Upon prize forfeiture, no compensation will be given.

    • The names of Winners will be posted on www.fqxi.org on or about May 8, 2018.

    • GENERAL: Acceptance of a prize constitutes permission by Winner to use of his/her name, photograph and/or likeness for advertising, publicity and promotion purposes without compensation (unless prohibited by law).

  • CAUTION: ANY ATTEMPT BY AN ENTRANT TO DELIBERATELY DAMAGE ANY WEB SITE OR UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THE PROMOTION MAY BE A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS AND SHOULD SUCH AN ATTEMPT BE MADE, THE CONTEST ENTITIES RESERVE THE RIGHT TO SEEK DAMAGES FROM ANY SUCH PERSON TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW.






0 Thoughts to “African Liberty Essay Competition 2012 Electoral Votes

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *