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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

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Drew Tkac November 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato

David November 8, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Participants and non-participants are governed by the same people.

I maintain that voting does not mean you are participating in politics.

Will November 19, 2010 at 7:44 am

All good points-

Forgive me for not trawling through all the comments- this may have been said already- one must live as if what one does makes a difference.

On the other hand, voting is worryingly cathartic, particularly in puppet A or puppet B style elections. Ho hum…


Leah January 1, 2011 at 11:23 am

It amuses me no end that people still think we live in a democracy! The only reasonably democratic day in our lives is “election day”…the rest of the time we live in a benevolent dictatorship, that is quickly losing it’s benevolence.

I hear what you’re saying David, and I agree with you. Mere voting is not enough to truly change anything at all. Until the average person starts paying much closer attention to issues as opposed to party lines and rhetoric…until they start asking very pointed questions that ensure politicians understand they are not only being watched, they are being judged and expectations follow – nothing will change.

Unfortunately, media in Canada is owned by those who control politics and politicians. They don’t print truth when it’s in front of their noses – and they won’t allow us to either. One long hard look at BC is enough to tell the rest of Canada that something is drastically wrong – and time is quickly running out to fix it. IF it is even fixable at this late stage of the game.

Ben May 25, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I agree with your overarching sentiment that just voting isn’t enough. We should do our best to try to read up on the issues and, if we feel we understand an issue well enough, try to convince others. In a way, that’s why I bringing up two thoughts now. I apologize if these arguments were brought up earlier. I don’t typically write comments, but here goes:

(1) Why higher voter turnout is good.

It’s good to have higher voter turnout because when a person goes to vote, it is plausible that they take the decision seriously. Whether they try to do much research or already have strong, predetermined views on the issues, they don’t idly drop the ballot in the box. Because of this, a larger number of people voting gives a more accurate representation of the will of the people.
You might rightfully point out that this isn’t always a good thing. After all, if all the additional people are voting based solely on dogma with educating themselves on the issues, the vote might be more representative but have a worse outcome for the nation. I would reply by saying that there is has been empirically shown examples of the “wisdom of crowds”: you average their results on a complex question which none of them can explicitly answer and their collective intuitive certainties and uncertainties can actually get in the ballpark of the correct answer. There is reason to think that elections could be just such a problem.
Now, for any particular election, it is difficult to say whether it would have been best for a smart few to vote on a topic or to have larger representation, but I find it very intuitive to think that, over the course of many elections, having larger representation is better. There are all kinds of subtle yet terrible mistakes a small number of people can make, even when they are exceedingly smart. However, if the political ideas can sway the intuitions of larger numbers of people, with all of their differing backgrounds and opinions, you have a certain guard against the gravest errors. Think of it like a stock portfolio: if you invest all your money in a few stocks, the risks and the potential rewards go up. For any particular investment, it might be worth it. (For example, if you have solid knowledge how those few stocks will behave.) However, the best performance across many instances of investment is to diversify across many stocks. You won’t get as high a growth rate (i.e. rate of political progress), but you also protect yourself from many risks.

(2) While I agree that, in one sense, one’s vote would not influence the actual outcome of an election all by itself, I think it is a misleading sense. It is incorrect to infer from this that voting has no effect.

If I were to stop recycling, or if I were to steal minor items from large department stores when I knew I could get away with it, this would not have any noticeable effect on society at large. Nevertheless, we can tell that we are contributing to society, in some small but real way, by recycling and not stealing. We can feel a duty associated with these tasks. Perhaps it is easier to see it in these cases because there are tangible objects involved, but voting has the same small-but-real influence.
An objection one could make here is that the difference between voting and my examples is not just one of tangibility: voting has a binary result (at least in the US), recycling and not stealing have gradual results. If several fewer people stop recycling and start stealing, it makes a small but real difference in society. Conversely, if several fewer people abstain from voting, it won’t make a difference in a large election. I would reply that this involves a post-election bias. “Candidate A beat candidate B by 10000 votes, so my vote would note have made any difference.” This is a tempting line of thought because even if the vote hasn’t actually occurred yet, you might be able to see that A has a large margin above B in polls. However, the election hasn’t actually happened yet. By casting your vote, given your state of knowledge, you give one candidate a slightly higher probability of winning. Some of this has to do with Bayesian conditional probabilities. Even with pre-election analysis, you can’t be 100% confident about the winner or the voter turnout and, with that imperfect state of knowledge (however slightly imperfect it is), you still are giving a small but real probabilistic edge to your candidate. A weird analogy would be giving a gun to a human fighting a giant robot. It’s a small contribution to the human’s side, but it’s real.

David May 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm

1) I disagree there. I think the more people voting, the lower the average voter awareness of candidate’s platforms, and therefore the lower average level of understanding of the probable effects of having a particular administration in place. If people who weren’t particularly compelled by politics refrained from voting, it would drive up the average level of voter political awareness, which is better in my opinion. By shrinking the voter pool, it would also increase the value of every single vote that is cast.

2) I have already addressed the faulty litter/recycling analogy several times so I won’t go over it again. One theft or one instance of littering does make an immediate and actual difference in society. One vote does not.

Your other point though:

Candidate A beat candidate B by 10000 votes, so my vote would note have made any difference.” This is a tempting line of thought because even if the vote hasn’t actually occurred yet, you might be able to see that A has a large margin above B in polls. However, the election hasn’t actually happened yet. By casting your vote, given your state of knowledge, you give one candidate a slightly higher probability of winning.

Even before any given election I always know that the likelihood of the margin of victory being one vote is virtually nil. “Extremely close” ridings, in my federal or provincial elections will be a few hundred votes, or occasionally less than a hundred. I would have to get 50 or 100 times as many votes as I currently do (which is 1) for there to be any meaningful chance of influencing the outcome. And this I know *before* the election.

All the more reason to either pound the pavement and try to swing multiple votes, or admit that you have no real interest in doing what it actually takes to stand a chance of influencing the election.

Nitya September 15, 2011 at 12:33 am

Maybe this has been said before; I’m afraid that I only read a few comments, but in a handful of countries like Australia, that has compulsory voting, every vote is important. At the moment, the Australian government holds power by the smallest of margins. If you were really determined to squander your chance to express yourself, it is possible to submit an invalid ballot paper, but it would be an act of great cynicism, (thinking as you must, that there is no difference between any party).

David September 15, 2011 at 6:53 am

Hi Nitya. In the 2010 Australian federal election, that ‘narrow’ margin was over 30,000 times the amount of power you will ever have in your vote. It will always be this way and if you want to influence society through elections you cannot leave it to voting.

And do you really think a vote is the best chance to express yourself? Ballots are anonymous. If you want to express yourself, write a letter to the editor of your paper, write an essay, write a protest song, volunteer for an NGO, start an NGO… do something that stands a meaningful chance of making a difference in society. Changing one of the vote totals by 1 does not do that.

As individuals we all have these and other extraordinary possibilities for changing society. Voting is a flea-hair of an opportunity compared to all of these, and we ‘squander’ most of them.

With compulsory voting, each vote is *less* important, because the margin of victory expands, and the voting pool expands to include every person who doesn’t know the candidates platforms and doesn’t care about the course of society. Why does anyone want that group of people voting?

If you truly think the outcome of the election is of dire consequence for your life, how can you justify just voting and going home? You must campaign, you must donate, you must do everything you can to help that candidate win, otherwise the election’s outcome evidently isn’t important enough to you to do anything with a meaningful level of influence.

Nitya September 16, 2011 at 1:57 am

It’s generally the voice of conservatism urging people not to vote as change/improvement requires action. “Not voting” has nothing to do with participation, that is an entirely different proposition.
All advancements in our society have been hard won ( think of the abolition of slavery, women’s sufferage, national health care etc). It’s only the result of a critical mass of voter responses that eventually brings about the desired change. Even then, such changes are usually met with great resentment by the rich and powerful.

David September 16, 2011 at 7:14 am

I’m not particularly encouraging people not to vote here. I’m encouraging people to examine why it is they vote, and ask themselves why they limit their participation in the electoral process to simply voting, if it is indeed as important as they say. I keep saying this, but everyone seems to think my message here is simply “Don’t vote!”

Conservatives generally turn out to vote more than non-conservatives. It is a conservative idea that who we vote for is the most important social contribution we make, because that kind of complacency is exactly what maintains the status quo. “The day to change things is election day!” and similar sentiments are exactly why so little changes. If our most socially important decision is to choose between the visions of society presented on the ballot, we are choosing some flavor of the status quo every time. The rich and powerful definitely want you to think that you have great power in your vote, because that belief is what prevents people from exercising any real social power.

It is cultural change that advances society. Voting patterns follow. None of the changes you mentioned would even have been on the table if driven individuals had not taken action to create cultural change. Do you think there was a black candidate on the 2008 US presidential ballot because of the way people voted in previous elections, or because of all the civil rights marches, essays, beat poems and Bob Dylan songs of the 1960s? These actions were all taken by people who recognized that their vision of society would never just one day show up on a ballot without a direct effort to change society’s consciousness and values.

Those changes are hard won, you’re right. But voting is the easy part, and the electoral process is an extremely low-leverage avenue for a person to change society. Change and improvement require action. Voting alone is tantamount to inaction. With respect to the outcome, there is no difference between an individual voting and that individual not voting.

Nitya September 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm

The provocative notion of “not voting”, is what got us all in. You can’t stand back from it now and say that the important message is to take a more active role in public affairs. You are encouraging people not to vote by asserting that their lone input is of no consequence.
This is a comment worthy of inclusion in “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas.”

David September 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm

The title of the article makes its point pretty clear.

What’s the danger?

The danger I see is that everyday people will continue to believe that voting is an adequate way for a person to influence the course of society. It is not.

The more people who believe that their vote sends a loud and meaningful message to society, the more power is accumulated by those who take smarter and more direct actions. If you can convince a thousand people that the most important thing they can do is vote, then you have effectively disempowered a thousand people who are all sitting on enormous freedom and potential to create change.

Nitya September 17, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I think you’ve lost this debate David, were it to be put to a vote. Your arguments in reply are not as strong as those of your opponents, and I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned Hitler!

David September 18, 2011 at 2:53 am

You haven’t refuted my arguments.

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Mike Linzoain June 1, 2014 at 8:06 pm

David, Your article is very accurate as to our system that we now have. But here is the answer. The only way to make one vote count, is for the elected person to put the power of that one vote back into the one that voted. Our elected poeple seem to forget once elected about the opinion of that one vote. Alls it would take is for some one to be willing to expose the corruption to the one voter that believed his vote made a difference. You see if my elected votes began to tell me who was threatening him or his family, then I would support him more and never support the crooks business that was threatening. Now of course I am using this scenerio as if I am the only one voting. It only would get better as the numbers grow. You see if we truly believed that our one vote made a difference, because everything was brought back to the voters and they carried out the poeples vote. Then the power would return to the one individual that would vote. This post is an example of that, You have personally responded to every post wether they agreed or not, pro or con, but what you gave them was the feeling that there one post was important. You put the power back in to the hands of the posters to believe you were listening. We dont have that trust in our elected officials, we have a false hope of it, but if they would respond on a personal trust level to restore the power of one vote. Then and only then would a corrupt system of powerless voting be changed into the power that was there in the beginning. Look at the excitement of other countries when they get to actually have an election, they believe that there one vote does count. An elected official in any United States of America office has to make a decision, I will give the power back to the voter and risk my family and my life to expose the corruption, or I must join them for fear of what could happen. You see one piece of trash is a problem because the power that it holds by not being recycled. I will vote every year with the hope that some one will be willing to yell”The British are coming, The British are coming” Thank YOU for allowing me to feel like I have the power to post my opinion on your blog.

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