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If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than just vote

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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

DerzaFanistori November 1, 2010 at 2:53 am

Beautiful article, really… Yet I have to say that I think it will have no impact whatsoever on your readers’ way of thinking; emotional ties to duty and shame are too strong, as well as they are to roll-overish laziness. I really find it hard to believe that people outside of active politic duties even think about elections as about anything more than emotionally egoistic preference display. But I really did like your witty argumentation, especially suggesting to people to invest even more time and effort into something they barely consider a sentient task. You’re a good man, I like your thoughts. :)

David November 1, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Well said. This post isn’t really an appeal to others to stop voting, but an appeal to either step up and involve yourself in the political process, or else admit that you are not involved. Regardless of how many votes are cast, most people aren’t involved and don’t want to be.

Fabe November 1, 2010 at 5:12 am

Dave, you’re totally right! I cannot change the world with my vote. I cannot even change the world by convincing my friends. They are way too few guys to provoke a difference in an election. Therefore I will stop voting. I will also stop spreading my opinion, as there will be no significant number of adapting voters anyways.
Moreover I cannot change the miserable state of our environment on my own either. The global environmental problems are not solved if I throw my paper in a garbage bin rather than on the streets. I will stop using garbage bins. Furthermore I will stop my chairty donations. My small fractional contribution will not solve Africa’s hunger problems. As my work does not infleunce the countries economy I will stop working also. In fact all of my actions have no influence on the global society. Therefore I will stop acting. I am just a tiny wheel in an enourmous machinery detached from any influence. I think I totally got your message ;-)
By the way, I do not vote either. Not because I believe that I have no influence, but just because I am too lazy.

David November 1, 2010 at 7:33 am

The garbage bin analogy doesn’t work, and here’s why:

1) Even one piece of garbage has an immediate, negative effect. Your vote has zero effect if it is not decisive. Not just a small effect, but zero. I explained this.

2) Garbage has a cumulative effect and it doesn’t go away.

3) A litterer litters on a far more regular basis than a non-voter refrains from voting. If the average person only threw one piece of garbage on the ground every two years, this would be a nearly spotless planet. After a lifetime of voting, a voter has barely a teeny chance of having changed the result of even one election.

Same goes for donating to charity. A small contribution does make a real difference in one person’s life. As a direct result, someone gets eyeglasses or shoes, or get fed for a day. Charitable organizations and frequent donors know this. The numbers are available to anyone.

Like I said, if you think voting is important enough to do, then you must think it is also important enough to do something that stands more than an astronomical chance of changing the result.

We’re still hanging on to this old idea that casting a single vote is a helpful thing to do, but most people vote because they are not really willing to do something that will help.

In fact all of my actions have no influence on the global society. Therefore I will stop acting.

Well that’s just silly. There is plenty you can do, but don’t think you’re having any influence over the election if you don’t do more than vote.

The logic of this is quite simple, but many people prefer to remain emotional about voting.

yoshhash November 2, 2010 at 10:45 am

David, you surprise me, I hope you realize what a dangerous thing you are doing- you are fueling the waves of apathy.
Think of it this way- you don’t have to win to get your point across. I have for years been voting for the green party, even though I may not have had the strongest faith in my candidate. Not sure if you noticed, but it is cool to be green these days- but only 10 years ago, it definitely was not. Greens went from being fringe/crazy/just a joke to having a legitimate and strong voice. I realize this is not quite the same thing (long-shot underdog vs genuine contender) but it is important nonetheless. Same as voting with your consumer dollars- if you never express your support for 100% recycled paper or local farmer by buying their product, they will give up, and the big mainstream producer thinks it is better to stay the course.

David November 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Hi yoshhash. Talking openly about why we vote is dangerous? Disagree strongly.

I’ve explained many times over now that apathy is not the motivation behind my decision not to vote.

I believe most of us vote so we can buy a right not to bother with the political actions we can take that can actually make a difference in an election — canvassing, writing editorials, campaigning, making donations, etc.

Voting with consumer dollars is another inappropriate analogy. Votes only have significance because they can change who wins the election, but it always takes a tremendous number of votes to do this. The spending of a single customer always has a direct impact on the bottom line of the businesses they buy from. There is no difference between 39,272 votes for a candidate and 39,273 votes for a candidate, but there is a difference between spending $200 at Wal-Mart this year and spending $0.

The Green party’s progress is not a result of your decision to vote. It is from the actions of a handful of people who invest substantial amounts of time and money getting thousands of people like you to vote. Whether you voted for them or not didn’t matter to the result, but whether those people invested all that energy and money certainly did. Moving one vote is almost always useless, moving thousands is not. You can only move one vote unless you get more involved. So your participation is inconsequential unless you participate in ways that can move other people’s votes.

The “coolness” of the party is the result of a cultural shift. With oil spills on the news, Al Gore making documentaries, and the word “sustainable” becoming a catchphrase, there is a very predictable upward shift in the popularity of the Green party.

Jane November 1, 2010 at 5:57 am

But the same reasoning could be used for Climate Change and recycling! that little me not recycling will not make much difference.

It matters because when everybody does it, then there WILL be a change.

Though i have to say it is ironic that I am commenting. I come from a country where there is effectively Only one party. It does exceedingly well and manages to make most of us happy. and it ALWAYS wins the elections by a landslide.

But somehow I believe that if they screw up, and a better party came around. the masses voting Together would change things.

A single straw is weak, easy to break. A bundle of straw is strong and tough.
Our vote is that one straw. if everyone took away that straw the bundle would be weak.

David November 1, 2010 at 4:16 pm

No, climate change and recycling are not the same. If I throw a tin can out my window, it’s there, even if I’m the only one who did such a thing. Same goes for carbon emissions.

Voting works on a threshold effect. There is no change at all until a certain threshold is reached. My vote cannot determine when that threshold is reached, except in circumstances so rare I do not believe they will happen. The result of every single election I’ve been in had absolutely zero dependence on the actions I have taken. But the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the amount of recyclables in the landfill does depend on my actions, every time.

The analogy is also inappropriate for another reason. Even one person who doesn’t recycle is adding a significant volume of unnecessary material to a landfill over the course of a year. It does not take multiple people to make a significant difference. Believe it or not, I spent the time I would have spent voting taking out my recyclables.

But the question remains: If you vote, why don’t you do more than vote? If it is worth getting in your car (all arguments about greenhouse gases aside) why is it not worth volunteering for your candidate? Swinging one single vote doubles your influence, which many of you argue is already large enough to warrant exercising. The opportunity to campaign and swing multiple votes is an *enormous* increase in influence to those who think it is worthwhile to vote, yet it’s relatively rare, even among die-hard voters.

MCA November 10, 2010 at 8:17 am

I’m coming into this discussion a bit late because I only came across it today…

David, you don’t seem to fully understand climate change or that analogy. Contrary to your comment, climate change DOES work on a threshold effect. In spite of all of the scientific modeling of climate scenarios we still don’t know what the tipping points are. Have we already released too much greenhouse gas, and the melt we are seeing in the Arctic is going to have cascading effects across the globe? Are we able to slow or stop the changes we have already seen or have we crossed a tipping point where we are going to see continuing slow changes? This is all about thresholds. We may not know a number, but there is a tipping point of no return if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases.

As you pointed out, when we vote we don’t see change until a threshold is reached.

My understanding of your entire post is that if we care about the political process, we need to go beyond simply dropping a piece of paper in a box. The analogy with climate change works well here too. Turning off a light is one thing. Really putting effort into reducing your ‘carbon footprint’ is necessary if you want to have a bigger, meaningful impact.

The one way that I see that the climate analogy doesn’t work is when you consider the option of non-action. You choosing not to vote does not have any tangible negative outcome for me. You choosing to not care about your greenhouse gas emissions does have negative consequences for all of us (even if you as an individual only contribute small, perhaps insignificant amounts of greenhouse gases). But here’s where I don’t understand your logic… If you believe that your actions to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions somehow make a difference, why don’t you feel the same way about voting? I could list mathematical reasons all day about how you as one single individual can only possibly have tiny environmental impacts throughout your entire life. Really, you as an individual don’t do too much environmental damage. The actions of groups of people have cumulative influences (6+ billion of us on the planet). You choose which group you want to be part of and each individual contributes a little bit.

David November 10, 2010 at 6:30 pm

The threshold argument is just one of many reasons why none of these analogies are appropriate. The threshold is virtually binary in terms of election outcomes, but as you say, the thresholds for environmental damage are many and they are unknown.

Each successive instance of somebody deciding not to vote does not bring us closer and closer to an environmental (or a democratic) catastrophe the same way instances of pollution do. Electoral politics is cyclical, administrations come and go. It’s been fundamentally the same our whole lives. But the environmental situation is constantly reaching new levels of urgency, and the science is always changing the picture. The effect of pollution is cumulative, and it is by no means a slow accumulation. It’s just not a parallel analogy. Analogies can be useful to make simple points about single aspects of two similar issues, but both of these issues are very broad and truths in one do not point to truths in the other.

Fred Fotolia November 1, 2010 at 6:35 am

David, I am 65 years old and live in the U.S. This is the first time in my entire life that I have read an article that expresses my (secret) feelings about the useless exercise that voting has become. It would appear that voting, not religion, is now the opiate of the masses. Election campaigns start out amicably enough, with the candidates providing vague outlines of what they believe all voters want to hear. In a brief time, however, the candidates begin name-calling and generally behaving in a childish manner. Why would anyone want to be associated with them in any way? How ironic that the candidates themselves maintain my disdain of our political process! My family tolerates these opinions; but if my friends knew, they would consider me a heretic at best and a criminal at worst. Those who visit the polls are rewarded with little pins that read “I Voted!” Perhaps I can find one that reads, “I Cleaned The Kitchen!” Thank you for a well-written and enjoyable article.

David November 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Well put Fred. There is a sinister element here: we’ve been conditioned, pointedly, to not only vote but shame others into doing so. There are a lot of people who have an interest in preventing ordinary citizens from taking serious political actions such as campaigning and lobbying. We’ve been taught to believe that we’ve done enough merely by voting. This way voting patterns are very predictable and workable by those who do have the wherewithal to influence elections. Get people to believe they have some political power, and then they will not seek it.

A regular reader November 1, 2010 at 7:07 am

Ha ha ha! That was hilarious!

Obviously you’re simply having fun, writing plain drivel just for the heck of it. That’s fine, and a bit of a change from the generally heavy tenor, of late, of your blog.

Despite knowing you’re not in the least serious about this fantastic point of view, may I, mock-seriously, voice a question?

You may or may not be an unpatriotic, lazy and cynical SOB in not voting, but in broadcasting this theory (and, for all you know, hooking some poor souls who may swallow this in all earnestness), and possibly seeding a massive non-turn-out in the next Presidentials, aren’t you, like, a TOTALLY unpatriotic, cynical (but not lazy, not that) SOB?

Answer me that!

David November 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I wish this website was big enough to do something like seed a “massive non-turnout” at the presidential election, but it isn’t. The people who don’t vote as a result of this article will be distributed amongst the 50 states, and in each of those, the votes will be distributed between different candidates. But if by some miracle I did influence an election this way, then perhaps I should do that instead of voting.

That same regular reader November 4, 2010 at 5:00 am

Now wait wait wait wait wait! You aren’t by any chance actually SERIOUS about all this are you?

I stroll back here to this, one my favourite blogs, today, seeing what fresh pearls of wisdom you’re sprinkling around (seriously, some of what you write does actually qualify to be called that!) — and I find we’re still stuck on the same old joke. Only now it’s beginning to wear thin. I see a whole lot of people earnestly presenting their well-thought-out responses, and, surprise, I see YOU very seriously replying to them (with a straight face, as far as I can judge). It’s like attempting a Ph.D. thesis on the latest Bushism! (Yeah I know, there IS no latest Bushism. Pity, isn’t it. I so miss the Bush, and his priceless bloopers! The man was an institution. He should have got the Peace Nobel, not Osama — no matter how many Iraqis and Afghans, and Americans as well, he bumped off, think of how much laughter he brought to our lives. I mean, he even LOOKED like Alfred. Being a joker was his sacred God-given calling, and no man has been truer to his vocation than the Bush!)

Anyway, back to the blog. So, my favourite blogger, are you a also a fantastic practical joker, or are you actually serious?!

Oops! Did I give the game away?

David November 4, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Calm down. Have a beer or something.

Ethan November 1, 2010 at 7:46 am

He Dave, great post yet again!
You bring up a very valid point, what can we do beyond casting a vote that very well may not even matter in the end? Why vote for someone who is just the “lesser of two evils” and not truly the best person for the job?
These are questions that shook my faith in America’s political system.
They are also the ones that opened my eyes.
I don’t think you are absolutely correct on this post, either, but it is still important and useful if you look at it the right way. I think the major point of this post is that, at least in America, neither politician of the major two party system actually represents “the people” that put them into power. Turns out, less than half of Americans vote, which means most of those votes must be coming from the private sector – corporations telling their workers to support the candidate that is most business-friendly. The problem is, with both Democrats and Republicans taking campaign sponsorships from said corporationg, neither party is legitimately tackle the fundamental problems in our society, aka poverty, equality, education, etc, because Big Business is the problem, and it’s in bed with Big Brother. With corporations paying (‘lobbying’) to get (and keep) elected officials in office, they effectively ruin any chance of beneficial reform or society.
So what CAN we do? How can we make our vote actually matter?
Why vote, if all I’m going to do is vote, and nothing beyond that? I could do so much more to help my choice get elected, so why don’t I?
I think I found the answer, but it won’t be easy.
I am starting a Green Party chapter at my community college (which will be officially recognized by the SGA this Wednesday) in order to make a difference. Green Party candidates do not take corporate sponsorships from lobbyists, and their platform is a complete break from corporatized politics such as single-payer health care, full funding for the education system (including free tuition through college), focusing on sustainable development and renewable energy, ending corporate personhood, etc, etc. It’s all there. The change that we need. And yet, there’s a problem. Because the corporations own the mainstream media, and the politicians, the media only covers democrats and republicans. Futhermore, Green candidates (and other third party candidates) need to receive 1% of the vote, or collect 10,000 valid signatures by the end of the year, in order to remin on the ballot. The current system pretty much eliminates the viability of third parties (see: spoiler votes), and has become very, very corrupt. I’m trying to get the word out that basically 1) Green Candidates are proposing real solutions and have no incentive not to follow through on them
2) Our electoral system is in need of reform, despite what the pols and the media want you to think
3) Most (not all) pols do not want you to know what they really stand for (and neither does the media)
4) What is good for Big Business is not necessarily for the greater good of the world and its people.

So…there’s a lot more going on here than I’m mentioning, but I just wanted to say this: you’re right in that voting isn’t everything, but you’re wrong that it doesn’t matter. You are absolutely spot-on, however, when you say that voting alone isn’t enough, and that further action is required in order to truly make a difference. “We must be the change we want to see in the world”

David November 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm

I commend you on your initiative. You are an anomaly in that regard, and I hope you are successful.

I must point out that I didn’t quite say “voting doesn’t matter.” Clearly elections are decided by votes. But if you want to make a difference in an election, you must do more than vote, you must influence votes in quantity. We have been trained to believe that simply casting a vote is a worthy accomplishment, and that it means you graduate from “lazy do-nothing” to “active participant in the political process.” If we really do have a civic duty (and I think it can be argued that we do) it is naive to think that voting fulfills it.

Ethan November 3, 2010 at 7:11 am

Thank you, I hope so too. I have a plan actually, and I tihnk it has a shot, but it’s gonna take a lot of work and time to really get it going. I’m trying to get my friends in campuses across the US to start their own Green chapters and literally build a voter base (mainly from the youth of the nation) big enough to actually have a chance against the big 2. If enough people around my age agree with the Green platform, they could influence their friends and families, and it could really snowball if we do this right.
My mistake about you saying that voting doesn’t matter. I understood what you meant but I guess I was just in a hurry to type up my comment and didn’t check it close enough. It is our civic duty to be an “active participant in the voting process”, at least in my mind. I’ve actually developed a philosophical thesis that concludes that we do, in fact, have the ability to be(come) morally responsible and the duty to exercise it. Right now I view American politics as morally wrong, and it is my civic duty to try and change that, and change it I shall (hopefully lol).
It all starts today! :)

Drew Tkac November 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

This is exactly the reason our country is being run by corporations. The average guy gets disgusted with voting. Says it doesn’t matter. This reduces the election turn out. Then the election is decided by the enthusiastic margins and the lobbyist.

Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” I do not believe we have a democracy anyway. It is an oligarchy under the cover of democracy.

So what is the alternative to voting?

David November 1, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I think many people here are misunderstanding what I’m getting at. This is not an attack on democracy. This doesn’t stem from apathy or even disillusion. What I am saying is that most people say politics is important to them, yet they are satisfied that they’ve made a worthy contribution to society merely by picking a candidate and voting.

You know as well as I that corporations will still run the US no matter who is elected or how many people vote. More than anything, it is a function of the US’s neurotic phobia of anything that could possibly be considered socialism. Public medicine?? That’s for commies!!! So long as there is this cultural atmosphere of free-market-solves-all, corporations will wield the majority share of electoral leverage.

I do agree that the US is more of an oligarchy than a democracy. And one of the tools that oligarchy uses is this widespread belief that casting your vote makes you a real participant.

I mentioned what you can do instead of (or in addition to) voting. You can try to influence elections directly by lobbying or volunteering for a campaign. It is at that level of effort that one can begin to move multiple votes. This is a hard, low-leverage road and most people won’t do it.

The system is certainly does not leave a lot of power for the typical citizen, and that’s no accident. Elections are games played by the oligarchs. They are represented to the public as genuine chances for us to make real changes. If the goal is to better society, maybe elections are not such an effective place for an ordinary citizen to make changes. Politics follow culture, yet we try to change culture by getting excited about elections every two years.

Many people try to influence culture outside of the political system through art, media, philosophy and education. If elections strike you as your best bet, then go for it, but don’t think casting a single vote is anything but a symbolic gesture.

The truth is most people just want to seek happiness in their own lives, and will not pursue social progress using political avenues beyond the twenty minutes it takes to cast a vote.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:38 am

I guess many of us could agree that “people in general” should vote. If “people in general” did not vote, our democracy would crumble. Then the question is, why would you hold yourself to a different standard? I would say that just displays lack of integrity.

Sure, not voting makes sense from a pragmatical perspective. But people who are just logical and pragmatic in every situation are usually not the best people. No offence to people that skip voting, I am just making a case against pragmatism.

I think it simply is more healthy to be part of society and vote, even if you could skip it without any consequences. Voting isn’t even hard, I did it with some friends after a party. It was nice to get a walk and talk about politics, probably a lot better than staying indoors.

And then there is the mathematical perspective. Humans are usually horrible at estimating probability, just because it “has never happened” does not make it impossible. Here is an example:

You and one million other people each flip a coin, what is the probability that your coinflip decides if there are more heads, more tails or exactly equal amounts? Take a guess before you read on.

The answer? About one in a thousand, or 0.1%. Sure, it is low, but not very low considering the number of people involved are three orders of magnitude larger. So unless you have a degree in statistics and a fancy model for voting behaviour, you really have no idea of how low the probability is. Everyone knows that it is unlikely, but weighing the small amount of free time you gain against the future of the entire nation, is it really worth it?

But all in all, your point that to really influence the election you need to do more than vote is of course true. But that takes some serious time, time you could have invested in other things that might be even more productive and helpful.

David November 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm

I’m not even sure if I would say “People in general should vote.” I know that people in general will vote, so we don’t need to worry about this hypothetical collapse of democracy. If somehow nobody were to show up at the polls, I don’t know what would happen but I’d bet it would result in a smarter system.

So it sounds like your integrity argument is that we all need to join forces equally to prevent this fabled collapse of democracy due to zero turnout. I don’t think that is even close to a realistic possibility so I don’t feel like I am lacking in integrity by not worrying about preventing that.

I think it simply is more healthy to be part of society and vote, even if you could skip it without any consequences. Voting isn’t even hard, I did it with some friends after a party.

This is a fair point. I think it is healthy to participate in the workings of society, but I think our habit of voting actually impedes that. Because we think of voting as our civic duty, we have become complacent with confining our political participation to that inconsequential level. It’s like you’re off the hook if you just show up and pick one of the names on the ticket.

If a moral argument can be made for casting your vote, then it can certainly be made for doing something that might actually have a chance of making a difference in the outcome. But we don’t criticize each other for not being more involved in lobbying and canvassing, because nobody really wants to make that their responsibility. Voting is easy, like you say, and that’s why so many people do it, and why it has no power to change anything.

I don’t need to have a stats degree to read studies compiled by those who do. The probabilities are well-established, and out there for your perusal, if you are interested. But I am a math person and I do it for a living.

But all in all, your point that to really influence the election you need to do more than vote is of course true. But that takes some serious time, time you could have invested in other things that might be even more productive and helpful.

This is really my point, and I think the comments are focusing more on the “don’t vote” part of it. There is much more we can do to change society than vote. I am convinced you are doing more to help society just making one small act of generosity for another person than you would be by voting. Especially if it’s for a bad candidate :) Maybe every election I will do that instead.

G November 2, 2010 at 7:26 am

The election-porn on TV builds up the sense of participating in history without one’s actually having to do anything beyond voting. It’s like watching a series of 24 then phoning in to vote for one of two possible endings. Experiencing Jack’s trials in real time, you have the emotional sense of having been through it all with him, and seeing the president strapped to that nuclear missile, you think you’d be remiss not to vote.

I think the electoral system is political theatre, like WWF wrestling, and it hopelessly corrupts how real politics are done by the winners, but I feel that your/Levitt’s objection to voting is a maths-based logical fallacy.

If we assume for the sake of argument that the other dodgy premises of elections are actually sound, the case for voting becomes strong: if the major candidates on offer really are the best potential leaders the nation can provide, with the best political ideas, and if the majority really do unerringly choose the best of these candidates, then there is a need for the majority to be a truly representative majority and not just some demographic who can be bothered to vote.

The bucket is filled by drops, so every drop matters.

Think about a choir of 200 singers – should the ones at the back just pretend and save their vocal-cords? I’ve been in situations of desultory church-attendence and there’s been an embarrasing moment where the number of people mouthing obviously does not equal the number of people singing.

I think that this maths-based objection to voting unconsciously rests upon other more substantial objections. If the candidates were Hitler vs Gandhi I would vote and campaign for Gandhi but what we actually have are two or three flavours of mediocrity. It would seem perverse to not vote for Hitler or Gandhi because ‘my vote is only a drop in the bucket’.

David November 2, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Haha! I think your WWF comparison is right on the money. A real clown show. It is clear to anyone who looks for it that the media very strongly pushes the idea that YOUR vote is unutterably crucial for the fate of humankind. This is markedly apparent when you stop watching the news and realize that the world goes on just the same, and suddenly you feel a distinct sense of being more connected to the world and better informed of what matters in life.

The choir of 200 singers is another analogy that doesn’t illustrate anything about the usefulness of voting. If the people in the back don’t want to sing, they might not want to join a choir.

Besides, one in two hundred does make a difference. I’d always vote if there were only 199 others doing it.

A choir of a hundred million singers would make a horrible racket, would have to be almost entirely comprised of people who have no business singing and I would beg that vast majority to leave the singing to those for whom music is an important part of life.

I think that this maths-based objection to voting unconsciously rests upon other more substantial objections. If the candidates were Hitler vs Gandhi I would vote and campaign for Gandhi but what we actually have are two or three flavours of mediocrity. It would seem perverse to not vote for Hitler or Gandhi because ‘my vote is only a drop in the bucket’.

Of course I would vote for Gandhi, but I would be doing it only as a symbolic gesture to top off a rigorous campaign. I would quit my job to campaign for an election that dramatic. If you planned on only voting in a situation like that, you might as well pick the Nazis. Not that it could change the outcome… too many people would have been moved to action to support his opponent. It is a silly example, but I think it would take an election with that dire a contrast to get the average person doing more than voting.

But like you say, for all of the apparent urgency of these elections, we are usually being asked to pick between two or three completely unmoving characters.

Henway November 1, 2010 at 8:49 am

Word. For my entire life I’ve been arguing this exact point with my friends, especially my political ones. They’ve given me these exact arguments and they never made sense for me. And so what if the person you voted gets into office? In the large scheme of things, unless you elected the next Hitler, your life will probably be the same overall. Personal changes trump government changes: go get yourself a haircut and a girlfriend before you act so rabid about voting ^_^

David November 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

And so what if the person you voted gets into office? In the large scheme of things, unless you elected the next Hitler, your life will probably be the same overall.

This is a side of it that’s often overlooked. Who says we’re voting for a helpful candidate? There is this unquestioned assumption that any vote is a good vote. I’d rather people don’t vote if they don’t know the platforms. Most people don’t. I usually didn’t, just had a general idea of their position on the political spectrum. Whether the winner is left or right depends on the country’s cultural conditions and not the voter turnout.

Dan Mitchinson November 1, 2010 at 9:07 am

I had reached some of these conclusions a few years ago when elections were on in New Zealand. I didn’t vote then, and I doubt I ever will again.
At that time I realised my ignorance within the political world. I would say that I knew slightly more about politics in general, and the parties vying for votes, than the average voter. Yet when I honestly examined my opinions and reasons for voting for one or the other, I realised that I was making an uninformed decision and that neither party could clarify or substantiate their intentions.
I don’t like making uninformed decisions about my lunch, let alone who is governing my country.
I could have committed myself to finding out all the available information necessary to be a valuable voter, but I didn’t. It didn’t seem important enough at the time.
For a decision that seemed soooo important to the many people to whom I mentioned my refrain from voting, not one of them could do anymore than regurgitate a generic “Labour” (Demo) or “National” (Repub) tag line. The greatest gusto came from their seemingly infallible wisdom that to not vote was worse than sin.
I was accosted by friends for my inaction.
It seemed there was much more animosity towards me from anyone from left or right, than to their opposition! It staggered me.
The amount of gratification we must receive from ‘doing our part’ is hard to grasp.
Exactly as you said, it’s not some kind of rebellious stand against “the machine”. It’s not laziness or apathy.
It’s quite the opposite. It is the careful consideration and reflection on how best to exert ones efforts.

If you want change, do something about it. Be an activist. Be an artist or a philanthropist. Get INVOLVED with a political party if you think that will create the future you want. Don’t hide behind a ballot on a high horse, thats bullshit.

Thanks again, David.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Yet when I honestly examined my opinions and reasons for voting for one or the other, I realised that I was making an uninformed decision and that neither party could clarify or substantiate their intentions.

Another great point Dan. Anybody who’s convinced a vote makes a difference could make an argument it is irresponsible to cast it without proper research. Not only do most people, uh, hurry this step, but it’s all based on pre-election PR material anyway.

It seemed there was much more animosity towards me from anyone from left or right, than to their opposition! It staggered me.

Ha! This is ridiculous but totally believable.

michi November 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

Ok maybe one vote doesn’t make a difference, but let’s all admit that many votes (if a great enough % of the whole) do. I have no problem with you choosing not to vote, but by trying to convince many other people (recently you hit one million unique IPs?) to do the same you’re indeed working to affect the outcome of the vote.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:14 pm

I did think about the effect this post would have before I decided to write it. But my readers are dispersed between many countries and US states, so I don’t think I’d be able to swing any more than ten or twenty votes in any one riding, and that would be unlikely. The people who decide not to vote will be divided between the candidates anyway, so there may be a net effect of three or four votes for own candidate in one riding somewhere.

If by some miracle I did swing an election with this post, then… cool. If posting here can swing elections, I’ll definitely do it instead of voting. Like I said there are better ways to influence an election than just voting and going home.

But overall, I can’t imagine it being an unhealthy thing to get people to think about why they really do vote, and how much effect it is really having. My hopes with this post is that I convince the most politically passionate people to get out there and do more than vote.

Tom K November 1, 2010 at 10:56 am

Vote, don’t vote. It’s all the same to capital-L Life. Mostly it’s a matter of temperament, which, too, is Life’s doing. Life pulls the wool; perforce, men work the salt mines and feel/believe they thereby improve their chances to find diamonds.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I think we’re on the same page here… I think

Trish Scott November 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

Well said. You have expressed all of my reasons for not voting in most elections. I do live in a small town though. This year there is an election for County Attorney. There are only 5000 people in the county. I didn’t vote in the primary and it turned out my favorite candidate lost being on the ballot by 17 votes. I think he’d have got those 17 votes if the polling place had not been changed to an out of the way location. Now he is going for a write in. I really think that will loose him several (A LOT of) votes right there. I really don’t want to vote but I do care about this one candidate. Still, if he wins he has to work with the County Commission which is made up of all the good ole boys and nothing at all is going to change! I actually ran for County Commission a couple of years ago as a write in candidate and I know a bit now about how things are decided there. Ain’t pretty. So. When all is said and done nothing at all will change even by some miracle my man wins. Still, If my man loses by one vote I’ll probably be annoyed with myself if I don’t vote. So I guess I may vote. There. I’m clear now. Maybe I’ll vote, maybe I won’t.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Hi Trish. If I lived in a small town I just might vote in local elections, but more to engage in the social aspect of politics than anything else. I am a believer in the principle of democracy but we are often fooled into thinking our vote is far more important than it is, in a normal-sized election. In your seventeen-vote margin, your vote was not a factor, but campaigning for him probably would have been.

Drew Tkac November 1, 2010 at 11:31 am

Voter apathy is exactly what big corporations and the rich want. The news media, run and controlled by large corporations and the rich, have crafted what we see as “news” to elicit this apathy.

When you think about it there are very few rich people and lots of average people. But each person only gets one vote. So in a perfectly informed world, and a world where everyone voted, the rich would never get their interest served because the interest of the average person (there are more of us) would always win.

So how do the rich control this? By influencing the average person to vote against their own interest. Or better still, not vote at all.

This explains why the tea party movement, that consists of poor and uneducated members, is in support of issues that are desired by the rich (and against the tea party members), such as no estate tax and no national health care.

I fear that it is too late to do anything about this. The voting apathy and media disinformation has reached a critical mass and can not be reversed except through perhaps a revolution. The chances of a revolution are small because we have become a country of fat, lazy, and ignorant, but not stupid, people.

Below is a link to Chomsky’s propaganda model that better explains these concepts:


At one point in history our vote did matter. But it seems that as the country gets older, wealth coagulates to a few. When this happens the hope for the common man is gone and nothing can be done. So vote or don’t vote it doesn’t really matter now, but at least realize, that you are most likely being manipulated and that’s how we got in our current situation.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I’ve already explained that this is not about apathy, it’s about appealing to people to either get involved or admit that they are not involved.

The problem of oligarchy you keep referring to is a separate issue and I don’t think voter turnout has anything to do with it. More turnout just means more votes for each candidate and virtually the same margin proportionally.

A world where everyone votes is not the same as a world where everyone is informed. When the average voter absorbs 5+ hours of television a day you aren’t going to get a lot of clear-headed, discerning voters. You’re going to get a lot of rah-rah and blue-or-red voting with little critical thinking. If there is a problem with public involvement in elections it is not that we are so uninterested that we don’t vote, it’s that we’re so uninterested that we vote and call it a day.

The oligarchs definitely want you to vote and do absolutely nothing else.

mike November 2, 2010 at 11:37 am

……..and I approve this message

Brad November 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I don’t vote, but I think your logic is just plain faulty. You say that one individual vote doesn’t matter, yet anyone who cares about the election should actively campaign to amass a large sum of individual votes from others. It’s a double standard between yourself and everyone else. It is just like saying not to worry about how much energy you consume because you alone do not affect national energy security. But if you care, make sure you get everyone else to watch their own consumption.

Personally I think most people should not vote because studies show all too well what influences voter’s choices. Certainly not the candidates’ stances on the issues. It is body language, image, and mannerisms. Why should the people convince each other to participate in psychological pandering? It amazes me that so few people encourage each other to sit down and read about issues and the candidates’ plans. No, it is always just to get out there and vote. To me that is the same problem in so many places. It’s like saying don’t worry about going through medical school; just get out there with your scalpel and try to save some lives.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:54 pm

I’ve already debunked the erroneous energy/pollution analogy a couple of times in other comments and in emails this morning so I’m not going to go over it again.

I think no matter who votes (the informed, the uninformed, the passionate, the shamed) the results are going to be pretty much the same. Most of us identify with a party quite strongly and won’t change based on platform details. So I’m not going to say certain demographics should or shouldn’t vote. But this is not med school. The actions of doctors have real, immediate consequences. Inform yourself, absolutely, but that will not make your vote bigger than someone who did no research who’s voting for the other guy.

If you really do think it’s important that a particular candidate wins this time, how can you justify voting without trying to make a real difference to the outcome? People are razzing me all day but nobody will answer this question. Why don’t you do more than vote if this really is important?

Brad November 2, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I personally do not care who wins; I only object to the double standard you propose. If you care enough to spend your time convincing countless others to vote, surely you should do the same. Suppose everyone adopted this philosophy you set forth. We’d have millions of maniacs drumming up support for their favored candidates, but not a single actual voter! Ha, that sounds like something out of Catch-22.

And surely the informed must vote differently than the uninformed? The whole point of gaining information on something is so that you can more accurately adjust your view to fit it. If your position remains absolutely stagnant, you can’t be taking in a thing.

mike November 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm

…absolutely flawless logic……….yet i detect an element of reverse psychology here if im not mistaken…

David November 1, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Sort of. It would be great if more people would get actively involved if they are passionate about a particular candidate. This post is a challenge to people who say the electoral process is important to them. But I’m not encouraging anybody to drop a vote “just cuz.”

joe November 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

If you stand by this opinion it is indeed interesting. You speak much of not being ruled by ego, and yet you complain your vote is not important enough to make a difference. Sounds to me like a defense for the unimportant ego you are toting.

David November 1, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I’m not complaining. Ego plays a huge role here, and in the rest of life. I never denied that. I think I’m being typecast here.

Sam Hight November 1, 2010 at 4:25 pm

My view of elections has come to this: “What if you don’t like any of the candidates, and what if you don’t think the voting system is fair?” Not voting should send just as strong a message, unless there is a place to tick that summarises your reason for not voting (wee bit paradoxical there).

Some more thoughts on elections that fit in nicely:

(hope you don’t mind me linking to relevant material!)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Disagree~ my vote counts.

We are in the process in QLD of having an archaic antiabortion law changed, every vote will help to raise awareness of the issue and aid others to persevere~ but then, I watch the movies 300 about 5 times a year (not about voting with ballots, but reinforces that small numbers and not winning can make a huge difference).

Revolutionary misfit is my heartmind path~ like every drop of water not wasted makes a difference, so does every piece of paper~ like much in life, the little things aren’t that little.

David November 1, 2010 at 9:08 pm

In a case where there is a clear issue I have a very strong position on, such as a referendum on a bill, I would get involved, and that means more than simply voting. If abortion came up as a topic here you’d bet I’d be doing a lot more than my “civic duty.”

With respect, “Every vote will help to raise awareness” is a weak justification for limiting your contribution to a vote, if that’s your plan. “Awareness” is hard to measure but you can bet nobody will suddenly become “aware” when the vote total goes from 171,120 to 171,121. But I suspect you’ll do more than that. :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 2, 2010 at 12:03 am

~:-) We need exactly 50, 000 signatures to have the MPs who, off the record, supports our cause, take it to the floor. We will be aware when 49, 999 becomes one more.

Our recent national election was a tie, and from recall, Labor got over the line by two votes.

My argument was not to limit the contribution to the vote alone~ I agree, social responsibility is more than going through the motions.

Justin S. November 1, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I thought this was a nice post. In every point that you brought up I can not honestly disagree with you. I am a recent college graduate and obtained a Political Science degree. My specialty was American Voter Turnout. There have been plenty of articles and essays on how insignificant one single vote truly is. There are greater odds of dying in a car accident on the way to the polls than your single vote mattering and making a difference. However, one flaw in your argument that I see, and feel free to rebuttal, is that after an election, all of this data is gathered and spread amongst politicians and the general public. This data comprises of who actually voted and what the demographics of the voters. Statistically, in the US, the majority of voters are older than 50 and female. Typically there are fewer voters aged 18-35. When politicians see this they begin to customize their campaigns and policies to fit the majority, or the over 50 crowd. They do this because they know that in order to get elected/re-elected, 55 year olds don’t care about education and (under normal circumstances) the job market, though that will change with the recession. They care about health care and social security and the state of Wall Street. Most young voters could care less about the well being of Wall Street. Here in lies the problem. Because different age groups care about different issues, politicians will really only focus on the age group that will give them the most number of votes.

So while your one vote may not decide an election, it does decide who the politician will listen to and what he/she will do in Congress. The more we can balance out the number of different demographics that vote, the more likely politicians will be more well rounded and willing to work with a vastly larger portion of people. You are right in that one vote doesn’t matter, but it’s the collection of votes that make a difference. And while I could get all Thoreauvian on you (another specialty from college of mine) on why is the majority right and/or better over the minority, I feel that is a different argument all together, though if you would like I would love to have that dialogue on the importance of the majority with you. I would love to hear your comments. All the best.

David November 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Thanks for the info Justin. There is so much at play and politicians have gotten very good at calculating it.

But I disagree. One vote does not decide who a politician will listen to. Only many votes in aggregate would make a difference to the demographic a politician focuses on. Your vote can do nothing to balance out age demographics unless there is a tiny, tiny pool of votes. Even if the voting pool was so small that there were only a hundred people in your age demographic, your vote would only change it by 1%. No chance that’s enough for anyone to change their strategy.

Tracie November 1, 2010 at 9:44 pm

I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it this morning. As election day here in the US is tomorrow it’s most of what I’ve heard about today.

I thought for quite a while about why I do actually vote. (After reading this, there’s still no question in my mind that I’ll get up and do that early tomorrow.) I wonder if anyone else can relate to my reason?

I vote because I want to stay interested, and because I want to engage in conversation with people about politics. I hope to keep at least half an eye on “what’s going on in government”. I know myself well enough to know that if I didn’t need to make a choice, most of what I heard about elections and the balance of power and upcoming bills would just pass through my brain without stopping. There are a hundred things in my day that are more important to me personally, and they’d crowd out all of that political data.

Voting, for me, is like having mini check-in deadlines on a long range project. Voting day happens at least once a year, and “election season” lasts for most of that time. I want to be on top of my yearly voting assignment, so I find myself keeping a little more attention on things.

It’s not the most noble or civic minded of reasons. I don’t think my vote is going to change the world, or even the town, but I do think it will change my level of observation.

David November 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm

I think it’s a perfectly noble reason. It creates a real, positive effect on your life and it’s probably only a minority of voters who can say that. Thanks for sharing this Tracie.

Murali November 1, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Funnily enough, in our last local elections, we had a tie vote for a council member. The person I voted for lost on a coin flip :-(

Having said that, even when you are active in a campaign, it is increasingly becoming harder to separate fact from fiction. Most of what we read, see, or hear is non-factual or biased, making it difficult to find out what the candidate really stands for. This is certainly not a type of democracy where the candidate works in your interest.

Kiron November 2, 2010 at 2:26 am

If you assume that your vote doesn’t matter unless it’s the tie-breaker in an election, because you used “you” a couple times in your articles (let’s assume we live in a world in which everyone reads raptitude), every vote falls into one of three categories. Those who voted and had their vote cancelled out by somebody who voted for the opposite candidate (and thusly their vote didn’t matter), all but one of the remainder who voted for the winning candidate (and did nothing but tip the balance further towards the result that would have happened anyway, and therefore didn’t matter), and one vote who breaks the tie.

Problem is, there’s no way to determine who is in what category, so I choose to believe that I’m in the third category, and you can too.

Also, even if you choose to believe you’re in one of the first two categories, you become something a little bit more than a was canceled or unnecessary. You become a statistic. If all that mattered was the binary outcome of the vote, then the litter analogy doesn’t work, but politicians look at a lot more than whether or not they win, because most politicians want to win again next time. In order to do so, they’ll try to mold their image and their decision to what they think their contingency wants.

If a candidate wins by a landslide, they can be pretty safe assuming that whatever they’re doing is what’s best for them to keep their position. If they win by one vote, they’re going to think about changing their policies to be a bit more popular, or if some nutjob takes 30% of the vote, they’re going to steal some of said nutjob’s ideas, hoping to pull from that 30% in the next election.

Whether or not your vote counts towards the outcome of an election is up for debate, but assuming that the only result of a vote is the winning candidate is downright silly. I do agree that activism can and will increase your say in the outcome (both winner and statistics) by tenfold at least though.

David November 2, 2010 at 9:26 pm

But if you decide you are that third category, then nobody else’s vote mattered. How selfish! :)

I’m afraid I can’t choose to believe that my vote is always decisive. I know it’s not and I wouldn’t be able to trick myself otherwise.

If all that mattered was the binary outcome of the vote, then the litter analogy doesn’t work, but politicians look at a lot more than whether or not they win, because most politicians want to win again next time. In order to do so, they’ll try to mold their image and their decision to what they think their contingency wants.

Hmm… but your vote will never change the totals enough to cross the threshold between “close” and “landslide.” A difference of one vote will not change anyone’s impression about what the constituency wants, unless the voting pool is like, twenty or less. Theoretically the candidate could cross a critical threshold (such as reaching the percentage required for official part status) by one vote, but it will become clear if this happened or not when you see the totals, and it is fantastically rare.

One could do what you say, and vote presuming that your candidate is affected differently when he sees the vote total change from 255,019 to 255,020 but that is some seriously wishful thinking.

Whether or not your vote counts towards the outcome of an election is up for debate

I don’t think so. Put it this way. Look at the vote count for any election you’ve voted in. Remove one from the total of votes your candidate got. Is the outcome the same or different? Why then was your vote necessary?

If you are suggesting there is some sort of unknown “butterfly effect,” wherein you can’t know the potential spin-off consequences of your act of voting, then I suppose you’re right, but there is no reason to assume it will be beneficial to you or your candidate. As one reader said, your chances are better of dying in a car crash on the way home from the polls than of changing the outcome with your vote.

Kiron November 3, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I may not be able to change the total statistics enough to cross the threshold between “close” and “landslide,” but I like to believe that political parties are a little better at math than to set some arbitrary threshold and decide things based on voted being one above or below it (although given the choices I had yesterday, I don’t hold my hopes too high). It’s a continuous variable, kind of like most of the analogies involving bits of trash lying around that you’ve been refuting in the comments.

I’d like to point out that I wholeheartedly agree with the title of your post, if I really did care about the election, I’d do more than just vote, however, I don’t care very much, so I don’t do very much. My disagreement is that I don’t think my vote counts for NOTHING, I think it counts for something minuscule, and I think the 5 minutes out of my day it took to vote is worth the 10^-5 ounces of influence that it actually had.

if nothing else, it was a reason not to buy an eggnog latte on the way to class. They are expensive and bad for me.

David November 4, 2010 at 7:09 am

They do not set a numerical threshold. They look at the results and assess what it means. There is no conceivable reason to believe a difference of one vote will ever change their assessment unless they win by one vote, force a recount by one vote, or attain official party status by one vote.

I still refute the trash analogy. One litterbug makes a difference to everyone in the neighborhood. There are many other reasons it is inappropriate and I’ve gone over them.

And I am saying your vote makes effectively zero difference. Effectively, that’s the same as zero difference. Just like one more bit of dust in your carpet will never cause you to get out the vacuum.

The eggnog latte reason is the best one I’ve heard yet. But remember what Justin said: Your odds of dying in a car accident on the way to the polls are greater than your odds of influencing the election. But if the benefits outweigh the negatives for you, by all means, vote.

Rachel Curran November 2, 2010 at 6:06 am

Hello Dave,

I always love reading about what you have to say and am always intellectually stimulated : )

I would like to propose that there is a reverse benefit to voting.

As I turn 40 soon, and have decided to spend the rest of my life in London, Ontario–a city that I love–I felt that I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and not vote when in this mayoral election the City had a white supremacist on the ballot. In fact, all it takes to get on the ballot is $200 and a list of people endorsing you in running.

Leading up to the election, I found a couple of objective resources which gave some history on the candidates for Major and the Councilors running in the Ward that I live in. I felt that when I cast my ballot at the shopping mall, I was doing something to assert what I felt should be the right direction for the city and for my neighborhood.

Although the Mayor that was elected was not the one that I voted for, it was a pretty tight race. After reading your article, I now think that the value in voting comes in becoming engaged in something which considers society rather than just the self and I think we are often prone to think only of ourselves.

To vote also helps us move more towards believing in an internal locus of control which is more empowering than to be the personality that is beset by everything happening without any control over it.

That is my humble opinion, have a great day Dave : )

-Rachel in London

David November 2, 2010 at 9:32 pm

I now think that the value in voting comes in becoming engaged in something which considers society rather than just the self and I think we are often prone to think only of ourselves.

I think that’s an excellent point and I completely agree.

To vote also helps us move more towards believing in an internal locus of control which is more empowering than to be the personality that is beset by everything happening without any control over it.

I don’t quite understand what you mean here but I’m catching a hint of a really interesting idea. Can you elaborate?

Rachel Curran November 2, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Hi again David,

Sorry, I may not be the clearest communicator–I’ll try to elaborate on my thought.

There are those people who believe that they have no control over anything that happens to them (who have an external locus of control) and so they just kind of aquiesce in general and are less likely to believe that anything they do would have any impact. Personally, I view that as a weak state of mind and an unfortunate way to go through life.

I think it’s important to feel empowered, to be assertive in an outcome, to strive, to have ambition and to want to contribute. Taking a moment to cast a vote, for example, allows one to feel somewhat contributory to society, whether the result matches what they voted for or not.

I hope that helps clarify the thoughts you have inspired in me with your original post.

Take care,

Rachel C.
London, ON

David November 3, 2010 at 7:14 am

Ah. I agree with you. But I would say that anybody whose internal locus of control only extends to the effect of their vote is a very depressing case indeed. There is so much a person can do to empower themselves. Few, if any, have anything to do with elections, and I talk about the most effective ones I’ve found on this blog. I don’t think voting represents a serious attempt to strive for anything. It will not transform anyone’s life, but it could give somebody a small feeling of comfort, until they recognize its complete inability to change what happens to them.

Andy Parsons November 2, 2010 at 6:14 am

I think the real issue is that most voters are very aware that their vote makes no difference, and as such most voters are fairly apathetic about voting. In Australia I dare say a significant proportion only vote because it’s compulsory (you may get a fine if you don’t), rather than because they think their vote will make a difference.

Moreover, I am sure I’m not the only one who often thinks both major parties are not worthy of their vote, and there’s little point in voting for anyone other than the two major parties because they’ll never get into government (although perhaps in theory if everyone voted for them they might).

This is a simplfication that doesn’t take into account factors such as the two party preferred system, and the proportional representation of elected candidates. However I suspect a very large majority of voters don’t fully understand these concepts and even if they did they would be incredibly underwhelmed by their relevance.

This will sound painfully cynical and defeatest, but unfortunately we seem to be more or less trapped in an archaic political system which was possibly the best they could organise way back when it was first devised. It’s undoubtably preferable to some of the well-known alternatives such as communism and dictatorships, but it is archaic and irrelevant and we could (in theory) do a whole lot better.

When I studied Australian politics at university as part of my degree, I devised an alternative system I think would work far better and inspire a lot more people to sit up and take part in democracy more.

My idea is nothing anyone else couldn’t easily think up, but really is just simple common sense. Use technology. Give every citizen a unique way of identifying themselves securely over the internet (very secure to ensure the system can’t easily be open to fraud).

Politicians need no longer form parties. The whole concept of political parties is stale, irrelevant and corrupt by its very nature. Politicians would simply represent the public in their local area.

There would be a government website on which all would-be politicians could have their own mini-site to showcase their ideas and values, and what they have to offer via videos, text documents, forums, blogs etc.

The public could participate in online forums and live video chats with politicians.

The public could search for ideas or issues they find important to them, and corresponding ideas from politicians would come up in the search results. People could “like” these ideas in a similar (but more secure) way to “liking” something on youtube or facebook.

The most “liked” ideas would prompt politicians to follow up these ideas. People could also vote online for the politicians they most want to represent them in parliament.

Once in parliament, there would be no such thing as fixed 3 or 4 year terms in office. Politicians could be removed from office by reaching a certain pre-determined threshhold of “dislikes” by members of the public. To avoid this being subject to “knee-jerk reactions” to unpopular but necessary government actions, a politician popularity would have to remain below a certain threshhold for at least a certain pre-determined amount of time in order for them to lose their seat.

If a politician lost their seat, the next most popular politician would automatically take it.

Every issue that comes up in parliament, every proposed new law, and every significant adjustment to government spending would be put up on another section of the website for the public to review, comment on, and rate.

It could be written into parliamentary rules, or even the constitution, that these comments and ratings must be the primary consideration in all government decision making.

This is only a very rough summary of my idea as the full version would take up far too much space here. Obviously a lot of it needs “fleshing out” and careful thought about how it could be abused and how to avoid that.

However this would be the basis of true, open, 21st century democracy.

Of course, it would need to be fully usable even by those who don’t have a computer at home, so special terminals (a bit like ATMs) could be installed in such places as schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, council offices, government buildings and shopping centres which would allow everyone to access the site.

I’d be interested to hear peoples views, but does anyone really think there is any chance that such a revolutionary system will actually be introduced in our lifetimes, or our childrens or grandchildrens or their grandchildrens lifetimes???

Sadly I don’t.
Told you I was cynical. I’m also a realist though!

Every time

David November 2, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Hi Andy. I don’t think it is cynical to say we are trapped in an archaic system. Watch any debate in a legislature and it’s like watching children. Campaigns are negative and full of low-brow pandering. It’s quite insulting that this is what gets created when we encourage the entire population to participate, but only at a nominal level. The awful ads we see on TV and the transparent posturing of politicians are largely a result of this common belief that everyone should vote, and that voting is participation enough.

Your system sounds good to me. The more freedom to discuss, the better. The internet has a way of making it easy for poignant content to get popular, and I think your system could allow great policy ideas to circulate and let different people of different backgrounds have an open say. The more open the better, and it would be cracked wide open. The system we have now is what has settled out over the years, and I wonder how a social-media-based system would settle out.

Changing the system would be an enormous uphill battle, and I don’t think it would be possible just to go out there and shout it from the rooftops. What is necessary is either long, natural cultural shift away from conventions like aimless voting, or some sort of catharsis in a major election. The most common argument I get against my thoughts on this is that if everyone thought like me, nobody would vote and “democracy would collapse”. I don’t think that’s possible, but some sort of collapse like that — a very public, very costly and obvious failing of the current system — is one of the few events I can think of that could result in a smarter system.

Andy Parsons November 2, 2010 at 6:20 am

In the above post I forgot to include one very important aspect of my idea, which is that local MPs would each be require to vote on all issues that are discussed on the website, and their vote would count for every voter in their electorate who had not individually exercised their own personal vote on a particular issue.

This takes account of the obvious fact we are not all going to become full time politicians and vote on every single issue before parliament! Nevertheless we would all have the opportunity to do so to the extent we wanted to.

As I said, a lot of this needs further detailed work but it’s just a rough summary of what I would consider true democracy that would be much more likely to engage the publics interest.

Christopher November 2, 2010 at 9:55 am

Whatever argument people are going to us against your thought provoking idea in this post, they only have to look at the title:

“If the election really mattered to you, you’d do much more than just vote”

I think that statement …right there ….nails it!!

David November 2, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Exactly! Very few people are addressing the point of this post, they’re only objecting to the idea of not voting. But almost nobody is defending their habit of voting without really participating.

Lindsay November 2, 2010 at 10:07 am

I don’t agree with this at all. I’m in the camp where if everyone thinks like that, we don’t get results.

And considering that usually only 40-60% of the population votes (and sometimes lower), don’t you think that is a good argument? Plus, I think exercising one’s civic duty to vote engages people and makes people more invested in political change and advocacy.

For example, someone who doesn’t vote may feel disengaged, complacent and cynical. Even if one vote doesn’t change anything, maybe it empowers people and gives them a platform to become more involved and advocate for their beliefs and values.

David November 2, 2010 at 10:30 pm

For example, someone who doesn’t vote may feel disengaged, complacent and cynical. Even if one vote doesn’t change anything, maybe it empowers people and gives them a platform to become more involved and advocate for their beliefs and values.

That’s a sensible argument, but I think voting actually achieves the opposite effect. Voting makes us complacent because we believe that as long as we vote, we are empowered politically and we are making a difference. There are a lot of things people can do to get more involved in the shaping of policy and the improvement of society, but if someone thinks that simply casting a vote is accomplishing that, they’ll be less inclined to do something harder that actually has an effect on policy.

Now that I’ve decided I will not participate on the level of voting, I can’t avoid facing the question: is electoral politics truly important enough to me, that I would put in what it takes to actually make a real difference to the results? So far the answer is no.

Anybody who votes and thinks they’ve fulfilled their civic duty or helped society can easily avoid or miss that question, because they presume that by voting they are already involved and making a difference.

Heather November 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Okay, you’ve convinced me that voting is useless. What you haven’t done is convince me that doing political volunteer work will be any more useful.

I’ve done political volunteer work. It’s not rewarding. The instances where you actually feel like you’ve changed someone’s mind, even slightly, are slim (and half the time, they’re just pretending so you’ll leave them alone). And you probably understand that yourself–have you ever been swayed by a pamphlet dropped in your mail or a letter to the editor? I haven’t. My boyfriend just got back from two hours of volunteering for the Democratic party, not even trying to sway people to vote for a particular candidate but simply calling to remind people to vote–and said that in the entire time he was there, exactly two of the people he called were polite to him. (One person told him to “get a real job.”)

In the U.S., the number of voters whose minds you could potentially change is slim to begin with. The majority of voters here largely adhere to one of the two major political parties, and either always or almost always vote along those lines. Of the minority we have left, most of them aren’t really “swing voters” who could go either way–their voting choices are determined by issues that are largely outside of your candidate’s sphere of control, like the economy. They don’t like the way the current administration is doing things, so they vote for the other one. Ultimately, the number of people whose minds you can change solely through volunteerism is tiny to begin with, and the chance that you’re actually going to reach those people is even tinier. The only way to really change things is to run for office yourself.

And that’s the problem with the “You’re not doing enough” argument–there’s always something more you could be doing. Don’t vote–you could be volunteering! Don’t volunteer–you could be running for office yourself! Don’t run for city treasurer–you could be running for Senate! The problem with this is that the higher up you go on the ladder, the more time you have to put into it–and the less actual payoff you get for every hour you invest. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with volunteering, but you can’t go into it expecting that you’ll actually change enough minds to influence the result of an election . . . even the tiny elections that are decided by ten votes or less. Because the chances of you changing even that many minds is close to impossible unless you’re the one on the ballot yourself.

David November 3, 2010 at 7:07 am

I think you are absolutely right, and that’s why I haven’t found it worthwhile to spend even more time on elections than I have in the past. Like you say, there are few true swing voters, and everyone resists having their mind changed. Most people strongly identify with one party and always will.

That’s why I think elections are not a good place to make changes. Trying to influence social change at the election stage is very low-leverage and I think most people would find it to be frustrating. When I suggest people go out and volunteer their time, it is because they are convinced that participating in the election, even at the minuscule level of voting is worthwhile. So how could it not be worthwhile to multiply their influence of this supposedly very important act by ten, twenty, or a hundred times? Somebody who does not believe voting is much of a contribution would probably not find swinging ten votes to be much of a contribution either.

I believe major changes in voting trends will only come from changing cultural conditions or from people with very significant influence over the population (such as news networks and established public figures). I think for most of us can do more for society in our everyday interactions with other people than we ever could trying to influence elections.

David November 3, 2010 at 3:34 am

Voting at least forces you to think about the issues and learn more about how government works. So the net effect is positive, even if a single vote technically makes no difference.

David November 3, 2010 at 7:19 am

I wish it did, but I think it is clear most people do not use voting as an opportunity to learn more about government or issues. I think the net effect is that people become complacent with a completely ineffective contribution to something they claim is important.

Another_Michael November 3, 2010 at 6:56 am

It’s unclear what argument you’re making re the ‘IF EVERYBODY THOUGHT LIKE THIS’ bit.

Which is the crucial bit.

If nobody voted, everything would be decided by the strongest individuals. While I certainly agree that some are able to buy way too much influence, we’re still a long way from that.

But activism can also afford individuals disprportionate influence. And if we were all political activists, influence would default back to the vote.

It’s a bit like a prisonner’s dilemma. The rationale for a behaviour in a single instance (my vote makes no difference) is reversed if that behaviour is endemic (absence of democracy makes a big difference).

David November 3, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I didn’t elaborate much on that point in the post, but I have addressed it several times in the comment section.

A zero turnout is not at all realistic and I don’t think there’s much argument there.

But there is another side of the “If everybody thought like this…” argument.” Some people reason that it is unfair to excuse myself from the voting pool when I know that somebody has to vote. But why is it fair that some people excuse themselves from the essential civic duties of garbage collection, sewer installation, roadway engineering, law, farming, municipal administration, and janitorial duties? These services are indispensable in a civilized society. Am I responsible for all of them just because we’d be up the creek if nobody did them?

Voting seems to hold a special status as something we all need to do, for some reason. Why not leave it to people who believe it is a worthy contribution? Surely some people will always take up those reins. It’s easy and there’s no real accountability for doing it well, it allows people to feel some hint of power… for many reasons, it’s an attractive way to contribute to society, I just don’t think it’s a very effective contribution.

As a non-voter I accept the consequences of leaving the voting to others. Sometimes the candidates I don’t like are the ones who get in. But that’s no different than before.

Another_Michael November 10, 2010 at 3:42 am

Hmm.. that’s not really addressing the crit of your article that I and others have offered, and I don’t see that you’ve addressed it in other responses.

The point of voting is not for any individual (or his ideology) to get his way. Pretty much by definition, democracy means often *not* getting your way. The purpose is for the majority view to prevail over the whims of the strongest individuals. Which is as good as it gets in a world of conflicting interests, but it does need people to vote – and lose.

David November 10, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I have expressed many reasons for not voting, and my inability to effect the outcome is only one of them. There is a whole list in my response to Andy below.

It’s a pleasant notion to think about: that the result of elections is truly representative of the view of the majority, but I don’t think it ever has been. Two people voting for the same candidate do not necessarily share a viewpoint. Everyone has their own view and their own set of mental and emotional positions.

I think no elected candidate can possibly be a true reflection of the majority view of the people, because there is no majority view of the people. Different people choose their candidates for different reasons, and I suspect a good percentage do not feel represented by anybody on the ballot and are only voting for what they feel is the lesser evil.

The assertion that everyone should vote in order to do their part to get us closer towards this ideal of a truly representative government is just another vague moral argument to me. If it is enough to move you out to the polls, then okay, but I don’t find it very compelling.

Another_Michael November 3, 2010 at 6:58 am

prisoner’s, even.

Rick November 3, 2010 at 7:51 am

Use it or Lose it.
I don’t care if my vote wins the election. I vote to express my opinion on the issues. I also vote to exercise my right to vote. The right to vote, especially for women and blacks in this country, was a hard fought battle won by men and women who in some cases were willing to give their lives to the cause. In some countries, people risk their lives to go to voting stations. Right now, public voting is the best method we have to allow huge numbers of people to express their opinions in a relatively easy, safe, and controlled manner. If you believe in a democratic government, you should vote.

David November 3, 2010 at 6:30 pm

There are lots of much more effective ways to express your opinion if that is indeed why you vote. Bumping up the vote count by one is not a statement that is going to affect anyone. Today it is easy to express an opinion publicly in a more specific, articulate, and influential manner than voting allows, in ways as safe and controlled as you like. You’re doing it right now, and people are actually hearing it.

Use it or lose it just isn’t true. If you vote to exercise your right to vote, why don’t you run for office to exercise your right to run for office? Or practice Islam to exercise your right to practice Islam?

Fighting for the right to vote has always really been a fight to be recognized as citizens. The right to vote is a civil rights benchmark that serves as the ultimate symbol of a particular group becoming recognized as human beings. This is an incredible blessing, but it doesn’t mean that those human beings end up with the power to influence elections.

If you believe in a democratic government, you should vote.

If you believe in freedom of religion, should you be religious? If you believe in the right to smoke cigarettes, should you smoke cigarettes? A right is not a duty.

ekim November 3, 2010 at 1:28 pm

…I would like to call for Calm and restraint here…i know many of you are angry for ‘losing’ your vote yesterday but Democracy is at work…this occasion brings to mind the immortal words of the great secular prophet Don Henley in the song End of the Innocence:”…

ekim November 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

..”when happily ever-after fails..we’ve been poisioned by these fairytales..”

et November 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I read an article a few weeks back about Obama. He was troubled by the state of the world, and the country in particular. He took long walks at night to try to clear his head and order his thoughts. He told Michelle he was deeply troubled by several things, and didn’t know what he should do. I relayed this anecdote to a friend, who replied, “So what? What does that matter?”

But my point in telling her, of telling you now, is that this article portrayed a man with a conscience, a man who felt the need to “fix things” but realized he, or anyone in his position, might be in over his head and unable to do all that much to really affect any amount of change. I’ve known for many years that our president is somewhat of a token figure, though not as much so as the British royal family.

I’m 52 years old and Obama is the first man I’ve ever voted for. That may shock and confound some people, but I don’t care. He was the first man I’ve ever felt strongly enough about to actually go vote my support.

I don’t care what criticisms people have for him,
I am proud that I did.

David November 3, 2010 at 6:35 pm

There are emotional reasons for voting. If it feels right, do it; it doesn’t really cause any harm. I think I should clarify that I don’t hold voting against anybody. But I do reject the common notions that it is a moral failing not to refrain from voting, and that everyone has a reason to vote.

Commieelasticorb November 3, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I love you. I love the things you say and write. But: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/39959392#39959657

David November 4, 2010 at 6:58 am

Hmm. The margin of error in that poll eclipses the difference it’s supposed to prove. And you have to sit through a Burger King commercial just to see the segment.

I am already aware that Republicans are more adamant about getting out to the polls than Democrats. It will always be that way because Republicans are more likely to vote emotionally than Democrats.

Even if those numbers are not misleading, it makes no argument for why somebody should vote if they do not get more involved. In fact, with such a tight margin it makes a strong argument for getting involved it a way that can move votes in quantity.

Tracie November 4, 2010 at 7:38 am

When I left the polling place Tuesday, they handed me a little sticker that said I voted. Like always, I put it on my trusty bag and went about the rest of my afternoon.

It must have fallen off pretty quickly, because I think I was asked every 5 minutes while I was out whether I’d voted yet. When I said yes, I watched people look for the sticker.

There’s a Facebook application that can put up a similar badge on your wall. I’m shy of their extra apps so didn’t. I thought about posting something directly explaining the lack of badge, and then ended up laughing at myself and moving on.

I have my reasons for voting, which I explained above, but being aware of the social pressure is making me a little giggly. I wanted people to know I voted so that they would stop looking for signs that I had. I wanted them to know so that when they thought about the people who didn’t (who could all have voted for their choice and won the election they lost) mine wasn’t a face that came to mind.

The inside of your own thoughts can be pretty entertaining.

David November 4, 2010 at 9:19 pm

The social pressure is really irksome isn’t it? Next time somebody interrogates me about whether I vote, I’m going to interrogate them about whether they always use their turn signals. If nobody used their turn signals, society would collapse. Using one’s turn signals with discipline and integrity is a much bigger contribution to society, IMHO.

Tracie November 5, 2010 at 11:15 am

I’d be curious to know how that conversation goes for you! :)

Izzen November 4, 2010 at 11:22 am

This article kind of turned me off. I already don’t vote because I don’t have an interest in politics and therefore don’t hold an informed opinion about any of the candidates outside of what I glean from Daily Show jokes.

I’m too lazy to get involved myself, but I don’t think this whole “your vote doesn’t count” mind-blowing revelation really matters in the long run either. Yes, in the media the message is pounded into our heads “vote or die”. Yes, many politically-minded people may spout this to you in person. But at a base level voting is just a message in a bottle. I wouldn’t care (if I did care enough to vote) if my message was never read, but the act of communicating my choice, and exercising that right to communicate it, could give me some sense of freedom. It would be foolish to look for power in one slip of paper anyway.

Granted you could always protest, or enter into the media, or volunteer on a campaign, but for the millions of other voter-zombies just the chance to make up your mind in and put your decision in a box filled with the choices of others who may or may not agree with you seems to be enough. So what if your tiny little cog doesn’t actually make things visibly move at the top? The reward is a feeling of connecting with this huge system, not the direct results of your actions. Politics is plays on sociology, not math.

Don’t get all defeatist on us like that.

David November 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm

No defeatism on my end, although the article does have a bit of a cynical tone to it, looking at it again. Just making a conscious choice to withdraw all my energies from the pursuit of changing society by way of election, and putting it somewhere else. Knocking on that door hasn’t helped me do anything positive for society.

I’m not sure why anyone would think voting is the only say they have in society. I have to say I don’t really understand what point you’re trying to make here, can you clarify?

mike November 4, 2010 at 1:32 pm

…David…this server is smokin!!………….

Simon November 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Hi David,

Poppycock. In the UK election in May, a Green Party candidate won by 1252 votes – not a vast number of votes. If those 1252 had thought ‘Oh what’s the point, the Green Party will never get in, I’m not voting’, the Green Party would have no representation in Parliment. Not all elections are just about two parties – one of whom wins.

Also we have a coalition goverment with the (always) third placed Liberal Democrats governing with the first placed Conservatives (who have no majority i.e. they won less than half the seats). If I and many others had thought ‘Oh what’s the point, the Lib Dems will never get in, I’m not voting’ there would be no representation.

Your argument seems to come down to: why vote, someone else will do it. I think people with no interest in politics shouldn’t bother, if so then fine. But I did read the manifestos and I did vote accordingly, and I am pleased at the outcome.

Drew Tkac November 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Hi Simon,

Unfortunately the US does not have a proportional government. It is winner take all.

I would like to see the US go to a UK style of government but that will never happen.

Daniel December 18, 2010 at 5:04 pm

You should specifically address that it is the US system that isn’t working (with it’s winner takes all-system).
You have plenty of readers NOT from America.

David December 19, 2010 at 12:55 am

I think it’s clear what I’m referring to here. The principles don’t only apply in the US.

I am not American, if you didn’t know.

Barry Coidan November 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I voted Lib Dem at the last General Election, in a strong Labour seat. I thought my vote and the zillions of other voters who’d switch from Labour would sweep in the lovely Lib Dem candidate.

What happened? A bigger Labour majority.

What am I to think?

Why should I believe that my vote makes any difference:

What’s so special about me?

That’s not the point. If I don’t vote – so what? If we all decide not to vote that’s a problem.

“Your vote makes a difference” is not a statement of fact; but an appeal to my vanity and if it gets me (and others) to vote then it works.

jeru November 4, 2010 at 5:02 pm

The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.

Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994)

Lennbob November 4, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Of course, more important is that you communicate with your elected representatives. They have to know what is important to their constituents if they are to properly represent their interests.

David November 4, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Yes! This is a much higher-leverage way to influence society, even if it’s not the candidate you voted for. I’d wager most voters have never done that.

Bonnie November 5, 2010 at 8:12 pm


How respectful, how responsible, you are to respond to each individual who was driven to write you. How tired you must be, surfing such great waves of positional passion for days.

I keep out of the waters in political season, watching from shore the emotion-cloaked-in-logic force of “taking sides” — especially which side to be against. Watching the offense/defense of one’s team, the allegiance to one’s school, the comforting identity of belonging.

So much blame, and so much certainty!

(How we continue to believe that all will be well if only this or that party is in charge seems to me an insight into some great need of ours. I think it’s God, but …. well.)

The point is, I stayed on the shore, but you jumped in, didn’t you. And you stayed with it. I watched you, and I was with you.

You were very clear and calm in your responses, but understanding is difficult when ideology is ingrained. But you know that, you knew that, and yet you stayed there, in the water. Very cool, David.

I hope you are resting. Thank you. :)

David November 6, 2010 at 8:33 am

Thanks Bonnie. I think I wrote like 5000 words’ worth of responses. The conversation was excellent and I learned a lot from the commenters.

Andy November 5, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Hi David,

I think you are raising an important point–that there is more to being civically engaged than voting. I also think you have made a very sound argument on how a single vote do not effect the outcome of an election, but not to why you have decided not to vote. I still do not understand why the cost of voting outweighs the benefit for you unless you are making the point there is absolutely no benefit for you to vote. From the article I could presume disillusionment and rebellion, but I would rather you explain.

You also make the argument that there are better ways to spend your energy to create change than voting, which I agree, but the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe they are complementary in almost any kind of large-scale change you seek. However, I think the more important point is that the cost of voting is so low for a lot of people that it makes sense for them to vote even if it’s just to avoid shame, while campaigning or even just deciphering a true platform of a politician often comes at a much higher immediate cost (time, effort, productivity).

Would you suggest making the cost to vote higher, so only those who are truly passionate vote? Although I could see the benefits in an utopian scenario, it would be a scary slippery slope.

All this to say I agree people should not feel guilted into voting and should put in more effort when they do vote.

David November 6, 2010 at 9:12 am

My reasons for not voting:

-Voting does have a cost (time, if nothing else) with no discernible payoff

-After having voted in every election in my life I wanted to see how it felt to abstain

-Deciding to abstain from voting means I must face the reality that I do not, and have evidently never, believed the political process is an effective avenue for me (or any typical voter for that matter) to change society. If I wish to take responsibility for the progress of society I must really think about how I wish to do that, because I no longer have any illusions about having fulfilled my civic duty simply by voting. Voting has the effect of making me think I have contributed when I have not.

-I reject the notion that we have a moral reason to vote, and I do not want to perpetuate it by voting when there is no practical reason.

-Voting was for me, and is for many, largely an act of egoism. I was proud of voting. I was proud whenever I noticed I was the only young person at the polls, which was often. I don’t think it was good for me to be gratified by doing something that requires little effort and has virtually no effect. In the past I have given people a hard time for not voting, and that was a mistake.

-The candidates we have to vote for must appeal to the voting masses, which warrants their pandering, mud-slinging, avoidance of certain issues while focusing disproportionately on others. Mindless mass voting rewards emotional appeals to the voting populace that may not make practical sense, such as “finally getting tough on crime” with mandatory minimum sentences or other such policies designed to win elections but not to improve society.

For example, the conservative party of Canada got into office by promising to drop GST two percentage points, which saves me a few cents on my coffee, and does not affect rent or grocery costs, yet it represented billions and billions of dollars in lost revenue to the government. This enormous source of revenue had to be replaced, so they cut the budgets of crucial cultural institutions like the CBC. None of this improves society, but it got them elected, primarily because people who are not really involved or interested in the political process or government policy take it upon themselves to vote anyway.

-With the prevailing belief being that everyone should vote, I expect I will have to explain my reasons often to people. I think they are good reasons, and I think the result will be more people looking more closely at why they vote, what effect it has, and what else they could actually do if they believe they have a responsibility to improve society.

You also make the argument that there are better ways to spend your energy to create change than voting, which I agree, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

I know that, but looking at the math of it I don’t see how the vote itself could be anything but a symbolic act to complement an act of greater effort and effect. There’s nothing wrong with making a symbolic gesture, but it still isn’t consequential in terms of affecting the outcome.

Drew Tkac November 6, 2010 at 11:01 am

Well this is my third post for this topic. I think I am over my quota, so I ask your indulgence. I have been watching the posts go by here over the last few days and I have been trying to get at what is fundamental.

I think down deep we all want to feel that our contribution, to whatever we choose to do, makes a difference. Once we lose that feeling, we lose interest and we feel it doesn’t matter, or feel that we should do more.

Consider the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was punished by being compelled for eternity to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Talk about not making a difference. We all feel the agony of Sisyphus. These myths take root because they are fundamental to our psyche. Remember we created the myth and the story sticks for thousands of years.

I believe that our human nature has not yet caught up the global technology, and it may never. We have evolved to work in small groups or tribes where we personally know the people we work with, and what we do have an effect on us.

Today, voting for nation personalities is so removed from the tribe. Firstly, we cast a vote for someone we really don’t know personally but only through what a third party (the media) tells us about them. Personally, even though I want to trust the media, I don’t. Secondly, how will who we vote for effect us? Most of the time we don’t really get a direct feedback. Again it is only what the third party, the media, tells us. For instance, are we are winning the war on terror? We only know what the media tells us. Again I personally do not trust the media.

I think when the US was initially formed with a small federal government and more powerful state governments perhaps voting enthusiasm was better. But the laws of history tell us the over the years countries gravitate to a large central government. Think of the USSR that eventually crumbled under it own weight.

Until the voting process directly satisfies our need to make a difference it will remain a rater abstract phenomena.

G November 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm

So when the subdivisions of a crucial quantity become small and numerous they might as well not exist? That is absurd! That is like saying ‘the atoms of a teacup only matter if they are a centimetre across (unless the teacup is the size of a grain of sand)’. Every atom of a teacup is ‘needed’ for the teacup to exist in its present state.

Besides, election outcomes are not binary: a large majority gives a party a bigger mandate.

I feel that the only arguments against this fall back on other points, like I was saying – if you accept the premises of electoral democracy, you can’t say that one’s voting or not voting is irrelevant; all you can say is that it is a very very small factor, like a single atom in a teacup. It’s not critical or decisive by itself, no, but that’s not the idea anyway. Electoral democracy is not about you, David, choosing the government.

I’d agree with the objection that it is presented as more of a power than it is and there are numerous good arguments for why it’s not really a power at all, but a tiny insignificant power is not no power. It is more than zero. I mean, where would one arbitrarily draw the line where voting’s pointless? Let’s come back to your words:

“Knowing the odds of influencing an election, it makes no rational sense to vote.”

Are these really the only rational conditions for a person to vote? When I know that I alone can determine the outcome? Again I repeat, and please take me up on this: you are implicitly rejecting the premises of electoral democracy; this numbers issue that you’ve chosen to focus on is a triviality.

Imagine a vote could get rid of Robert Mugabe once and for all. The people of Zimbabwe would vote as one, happy in their group-sentiment, without any sour thoughts that “I cannot sway the vote, why bother”. Are groups and individuals really different things?

David November 3, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I can’t imagine an atomic arrangement where the removal of one of atom would change what the teacup does or even what it looks like. Who cares about the difference between any teacup and that same teacup minus one atom? No, we don’t need all those atoms. If my only input is whether the teacup has that atom or not I don’t think it matters which I choose.

“Knowing the odds of influencing an election, it makes no rational sense to vote.”

This does assume a pragmatic standpoint and I know not everyone looks at it like that.

Nearly everyone is missing the point of this post. Please refer to the title. I am not rejecting the premises of electoral democracy. Democracy confers more benefits than simply the opportunity to vote in elections. I live under an electoral democracy and I probably always will. But I have never really been involved in the electoral process in any meaningful way and I believe most voters are in the same category.

A society governed by a democratic system requires many essential duties in order to stay civilized and nobody participates in all of them. Why does a vote constitute a fulfillment of civic duty? If voting is a public duty, what else is? Since we don’t all engage in every public duty, why is this one special? Is it because a government is chosen by votes, and government-choosing is the one aspect of a functioning civilization that requires everyone’s input? Clearly it doesn’t. I’m fine to let voters choose my government, just as they are happy to let me build their roads.

Your allusion to Robert Mugabe is an emotional red herring, a great example of the type that politicians use to get people to move to the polls. Stories about abolishing slavery, the Revolutionary war and other anecdotal ways of engaging pathos are easy strings to pull when we know most people vote based on emotion. As unhappy as some people in the developed world are with their respective political situations, Americans were not attempting to escape a brutal dictatorship this past Tuesday, nor was my city last Wednesday. This is about what we should do in the situation we are actually in.

This post is a response to the incessant moralizing any non-voter faces. Voting has been romanticized as a civic duty of critical importance, yet it tends to make us complacent with regards to civic duty, as if we’ve said our piece and done our part as long as we’ve tossed a vote on one pile or another. I’ve gone over this again and again, and I suspect some part of it will never sit right with you and a lot of other people. That’s fine.

G November 3, 2010 at 9:19 pm

That’s exactly not what I was trying to say with the teacup analogy:

“So when the subdivisions of a crucial quantity become small and numerous they might as well not exist?”

That’s the point I was illustrating with that and the Zimbabwe example. You are a part of a voter bloc, not a decisive indvidual. No atoms, no teacup; no voters, no democracy. You are not individually crucial; you are part of something crucial.

I agree with you that voting is not something that should be moralised about: in fact, I think that if people are so disengaged it’s as senseless to blame the people as it is senseless to blame inattentive pupils struggling to focus on a boring lesson.

But this wrongheaded numbers argument of yours/Levitt’s does not prove that it is pointless; it only proves that it is a tiny, weak power. If you want to prove it’s truly pointless, you have to look at other evidence and arguments.

For the record, I don’t bother voting, but I made this decision because I don’t agree with the parties or the system and feel completely alienated from the whole affair; not because I need to feel that I can individually alter the outcome. For me, going out of my way to choose the least objectionable idiot is worse than a joke. I don’t think it is an important civic duty so long as politics is such a farce, and I don’t imagine for a moment that voting will improve politics – as Billy Connolly said, ‘it only encourages them’. I would vote for Gandhi but there are no Gandhis. I perform my civic duty by being nice to the people I know, taking my glass to the recycling-bin, not believing in propaganda and publicly arguing against it – by trying to be a good egg in general.

David November 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Maybe we don’t really disagree here. I am not out to prove that voting is utterly mathematically pointless. But it is pointless on a practical level to me, and I suspect most other people would find the same thing if they gave an honest examination of the “civic duty” argument. I don’t think the numbers argument is wrongheaded at all to somebody coming to voting with a pragmatic viewpoint. People do vote to influence the outcome. We have a choice whether to vote or not. That choice does not influence the outcome. So does it then make sense to vote? If you think Levitt is off base with his numbers, write him a letter, I’m sure he’d be happy to get crystal clear with the math side of it.

This is the centre of the pragmatic take, from Levitt’s article:

Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost – in time, effort, lost productivity – with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your “civic duty.” As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”

Of course, there are many other reasons to abstain, but you know that :)

G November 3, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Heh, if I thought my life was a whirlwind of intense productivity maybe I would begrudge the time out for voting but I accompanied my friend to the polling-booths last General Election and it was a pleasant backdrop against which to hang out with a friend. I’m kind of the school of thought that economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

David November 4, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Well that’s not very nice. By all accounts, it’s safe to say he’d probably change your mind about that too.

Daniel December 19, 2010 at 9:02 am

Sorry, but I somehow misread Drew’s response as yours.
What is your response to Simon’s comment?

David December 19, 2010 at 9:47 am

Well, I’ve been over all of these arguments in other responses, but among other reasons, Simon does not get 1252 votes so I’m not sure why he believes it was significant that he voted this time.

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