Being Canadian, I’m not able to vote in the US Midterm Elections tomorrow. I don’t think I would though.
I’ve always been a faithful voter, but last week my city voted for mayor, and I didn’t go. I think I may be done with voting forever.
It wasn’t to make a stand. It wasn’t to pronounce my disgust with the candidates. I didn’t tell anybody who didn’t ask.
Last May in Australia I found myself in an argument with a clean cut, politically-conscious English traveler about the usefulness of voting. With simple logic and simple math, he shot down every pro-voting argument I made. I didn’t like it one bit, and never admitted defeat, but I had no leg to stand on. Before we parted, he pointed me to an article (written by beloved economist Steven Levitt) that made me finally let go of my stubborn belief that my habit of voting is a useful one.
I grew up in a family where it was a forgone conclusion that good people voted, lazy and cynical people didn’t, and that’s all there was to it. Including municipal, provincial and federal elections, I think I’ve only missed one since I turned 18. I’ve been a committed voter for years and not one of my votes ever made any difference.
You see, I have never voted in an election that was decided by one vote. So looking at it rationally, in every single one of the elections I’ve voted in, the result would have been the same whether I voted or not.
Elections that are truly close are exceedingly rare. Around the world, there are about a half-dozen public elections on record that were decided by one vote, but these were all tiny elections: 3 or 4 thousand total votes. Even on that scale, the vast majority of elections are decided by a margin that dwarfs the entirety of any individual’s voting power.
For your vote to have made any difference to the outcome, the election must have been decided by your single vote. Knowing the odds of influencing an election, it makes no rational sense to vote. I’m not the first person to point this out.
Okay. Fair enough. Your vote never affected the outcome. Most of us can accept that. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to vote, does it?
I have not found a convincing reason. But here are the typical arguments:
But if everybody thought like this, it would make a difference.
But they don’t, and your choice doesn’t change that. You don’t get to decide what other people do. The question is, “What difference does my vote make?” Knowing that you don’t stand a chance of influencing any election with your vote (or with your non-vote), what real reason do you have? Unless you are in an infinitesimal minority, then every single time you have voted the results would have been the same if you hadn’t.
But it’s our duty to vote.
That’s what I kept hearing my whole life too, but who exactly are you serving with your solitary vote? You can come up with vague notions of somehow upholding democracy by making a vote that is all but guaranteed to have zero effect on who is in power, but that’s just rhetoric. The fact remains that nearly all elections are decided by thousands or millions of votes, and the next day’s headline would have been exactly the same if you’d stayed home.
If it’s your duty to vote, why does your duty end there? If maintaining the popularity of the electoral process is the duty of all of us, why do we think voting alone is sufficient? As long as voter turnout is high, we’re all better off? And how much lower would voter turnout be if you didn’t go?
Conventional wisdom says that the higher the turnout, the better it is for all of us, but I haven’t found anyone able to explain why we should believe that. More votes only further dilute your already minuscule chances of making any sort of difference with your vote. It’s a moot point though, because just as you have no real power to affect the outcome, you have no real power to affect voter turnout by throwing your lone slip on pile.
But every vote makes a little bit of difference.
No, it doesn’t. Only an aggregate sum of votes approaching the margin of victory — together — makes a difference. In an election decided by ten thousand votes, your decision would make a difference only if you had ten thousand votes to cast. If you only had 5000, the outcome would have been exactly the same whether you’d gone to the polls or not.
Of course, you wouldn’t know the margin of victory until after, so it would make sense to vote if you had thousands, knowing that your votes could actually matter if it was close. So, yeah, if somehow you do end up with thousands of votes at your disposal, it’s possible that voting is worth your time.
The more votes you have, the more of a chance you have of affecting the outcome, but you only get one, and the chances are astronomical that it would cover the margin of victory. Same result, whether you vote or not.
But if you don’t vote you have no right to complain about the result.
I’m not really interested in complaining, but even if I did — why not? Your vote did precisely as little as my non-vote. I got my kitchen cleaned while you were out dropping your paper in the box.
Politicians naturally have an interest in nurturing the crusty old myth that we all have some sort of moral duty to vote. Pushing that tired old argument is in their best interest, because when they convince us of that ridiculous adage en masse, it generates quantities of votes that are large enough to matter.
Guilt and shame are used in a very calculated manner by people who know how to exercise real power over election results. Most of us are unwilling to do anything that might actually influence an election, so we vote in order to convince ourselves that we didn’t quite leave it entirely to others to decide who wins. But by limiting your participation to your single vote, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of not voting because they feel like they would then be forfeiting the only power they have over who governs. But your vote contains no power. It is a virtually inert token of your participation, which does carry some sentimental value to some people. But it has no election-swinging ability. There are plenty of actions that can make a difference but casting your vote isn’t one of them.
In the media, your vote is billed as a precious choice with resounding consequences, which means you should watch a lot of election coverage so that you don’t screw it up. Now think for a moment: who might have an interest in having you vastly overestimate the importance of your vote? The candidates, and the news organizations that talk about them 24 hours a day. You’ve been had.
They don’t want your choice to be logical, they want it to remain emotional.
But what if it did come down to one vote?
I suppose there is always that chance, but it’s so tiny. On average it would take many lifetimes of faithful voting for this to happen to you. It’s sort of like playing the lottery, if that’s your thing, except that there are no riches to be had, just the remote possibility of a nice feeling that technically it did matter, if only this once, whether you went to the polls or not. If you love the thrill of shooting for that not-quite-impossible outcome, then by all means, knock yourself out.
And what do you win if that miracle does happen? The candidate you dislike the least gets to be in power for a few years, and you can smile knowing that if you hadn’t gone, the candidate you dislike the most might get to be in power for a few years. But I wonder if it would make any considerable positive difference in your life; would it even be worth the dozens of trips to the polls you’ve taken in your lifetime? Maybe the candidate you didn’t choose would have done a better job than your guy. How much research did you really do?
Though the odds aren’t quite as bad as Powerball — one study calculates one in ten million for the US general election, which is forty million years of voting — the prize is pretty dull.
But voting is the only say we have.
This is just plain untrue. Did you volunteer your time to your candidate’s campaign? Did you knock on doors? Did you even write a letter to the editor of your local paper? Why not? You could expand your influence by ten, fifty or a hundred times if you could get other people voting differently. But this takes work, so few people bother.
Last time, did you do more than vote? If you didn’t, I would say the election just wasn’t very important to you. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the outcome, only that you don’t care enough to get out there and swing votes in quantity. This takes a lot of time and energy, and most of us find there is already enough going on in life and we’d rather leave the difference-making to those more interested.
A sign on your lawn is hardly going to swing anyone else’s vote. But let’s be extremely generous and imagine that ten voters, each suffering some miraculous instance of fickleness, see that sign and vote for your candidate purely as a result. How many elections have you voted in that were decided by ten votes? It’s extremely unlikely that it was more than zero. Even if the election is of that rare sort, there will be a recount, which — dishearteningly — always results in a different total, usually by hundreds.
Does the election really matter to you?
If you pride yourself on marching to the polls every time you’re asked, and particularly if you’ve ever given a non-voter a hard time for their choice, I’d like to point out that you aren’t doing a damn thing if you don’t volunteer your time to actively campaign for your candidate.
Low voter turnout is much-maligned in the news. But each person foregoing their vote this Tuesday to watch Dancing With the Stars will be making precisely the contribution made by the typical voter.
Though many people believe it is their duty to vote, and many of them feel justified in shaming those who don’t, the vast majority evidently don’t feel it is their duty to do any more than to cast their single, inconsequential ballot.
I am not against voting, but I suspect from now on I won’t be finding it to be worth my time to do so except in the tiniest of elections: for my office’s safety warden, maybe. I’m not writing this article to get you to do the same necessarily, but to ask you to consider why you do vote, and ask you if any of these elections are important enough to you that you would do something genuinely helpful for your candidate.
For me, none have been so far, and considering how many people believe casting a single vote is the extent of their civic duty, it looks like that’s the case for most of us.
Photo by Cave Canem