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Letters to the editor

You’re both wrong: Vote sometimes!

We were both very disappointed in the political discourse of the Point/Counterpoint section of Tuesday’s issue. While we do believe that Keith Yost’s argument that MIT students should not vote has some important shortcomings, the arguments to the contrary provided by Ryan Normandin provided no significant rebuttals and instead relied on emotional and patriotic appeals without any material backup. Since we believe that his counterargument is inadequate and Yost’s article deserves a serious response, we would like to offer our own.

First of all, since there seems to be a lot of confusion on this topic, we’d like to make our model clear. Let us suppose that we have a strong preference for a candidate in an election in which there are very many voters — let’s say a hundred million. What we don’t know is how any of the other people will vote: we can only assign a probability that they will vote one way or another. In this case, it is a basic mathematical truth that if the chance that the average voter will vote for a given candidate is not 50-50 (or, in the case of 3 candidates 33.3-33.3-33.3, etc.), then the one with the higher probability will win; if 100 million people flip a coin that lands “heads” 51 percent of the time, then there will almost certainly be significantly more heads than tails.

Thus, our vote will only make a difference if the election ends up being essentially even. What is the chance of that happening? Well, first of all, we have to assume that from our point of view, the chance of the average voter choosing one candidate over another is 50-50, since, as explained above, if we thought otherwise, we would already think that the election has been decided. Given that, if we take the probability distribution of all the possible outcomes in the election, it would form a Gaussian, with the 50-50 outcome being the most likely — just above 1 divided by the number of total voters. That’s still very small: approximately the chance of winning the jackpot in a lottery, if we’re assuming a hundred million voters.

Yost’s article essentially agrees with this. But the fact that something has approximately the same likelihood as winning the lottery is not a sufficient reason to dismiss it. The reason that the lottery is effectively a tax on the mathematically illiterate is because the expected value of playing the lottery (that is, the total winnings times the chance of winning them) are smaller than the cost of a lottery ticket. But that is not necessarily the case here. Yost correctly points out that the cost of voting is nonzero; but it’s entirely possible that someone might ascribe so much social value to their candidate winning over another, that even when divided by the total amount of voters — about a hundred million — it might still be worth the cost of voting.

So in conclusion, if you couldn’t care less about who wins the election, or even if you care only a little, you should probably not vote, especially if voting poses any significant effort. But if you care a lot and the ballot is right next to you, go for it. Who knows, maybe this is your lucky day.

Leonid Grinsberg ’14
Sergei Bernstein ’13

Don’t vote targets wrong audience

Keith Yost’s information about the non-importance of voting, and suggestion that his fellow students sit this election out (Don’t Vote, 11/2) are a great public service, but pitched to the wrong audience. It is relatively straight forward for young, generally healthy students to make it to the polls or to get absentee ballots. Instead, he should take this information to those for whom voting is truly a burden. For example, many senior citizens find it hard to get to the polls. And our captains of industry, CEOs, bankers and Wall Street wizards have much busier lives than the average student. They are the ones to whom Mr. Yost should deliver his message. Since it doesn’t matter, perhaps students could offer to do all of the voting, sparing the rest of us from this “frivolous exercise.”

Until then, did Mr. Yost at least take his own advice?

Eric Hudson
Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics

Misrepresentation of student HDAG members

We could not disagree more to the characterization of student representation on the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), as it was described in last Friday’s article (“UA rep to HDAG quits in frustration,” October 29, 2010).

This view does not accurately represent the role of students on the HDAG. Contrary to what the recent UA Dining Chair said, we had a very active role on the committee. Several of us spoke more than some of the Housemasters, and we felt that our questions, concerns, and comments were taken seriously throughout. The UA’s opinions were also considered. Last spring, we dedicated one entire meeting to a presentation by the person who was UA Dining Chair at that time.

We told a Tech reporter that this was our view in several interviews last week. It is unfortunate that The Tech chose to dedicate almost the entire article to the opinion of one frustrated student who served on the committee for a few weeks. Having served on the HDAG since last March, we can assure the campus community that student voices were heard.

Christina Johnson ’11, Simmons president
Ellen McIsaac ’12, Next House president
Hannah Rice ’11, McCormick president