A few weeks ago, I casually mentioned on a Facebook thread that I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election (DISCLOSURE: I’m a swing voting Sanders supporter). I was quickly scolded by an acquaintance with the “you must vote democrat because SCOTUS” argument, who went on to essentially say I’m an idiot if I don’t vote. A couple of days later, a different acquaintance – whom I know to be quite politically active and engaged otherwise – announced that he wasn’t voting in his state’s primary election, because he didn’t want to support a system that forces him to vote a straight ticket. I expressed my surprise at his choice, and mentioned how I was pondering not voting in the general election, and guess what? I got a calm reading of the riot act again. In this case it was troublesome, because a couple of people – who in this thread were suggesting that my non-vote was a vote for the other side – were not voting themselves! You can go ahead and debate the differences between not voting in the general vs. not voting straight ticket in a primary, but you’d be splitting hairs. Not voting is nothing other than not voting, no matter how cleverly you rationalize your inaction.
In that second thread, someone said “Seems to me not voting in the general election is actually voting for whoever wins”, to which I replied “the math is in fact not quite that simple”. Because it should be obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the system – especially when you factor in the delegate process and the electoral college – that it isn’t. But this all got me wondering….
Does It Matter If You Vote Or Not?
You can find a lot of answers to this question; it involves quite a complicated set of factors. But two of the more cogent arguments I ran across while searching the topic bring up a lot of interesting questions, albeit with the occasional condescension one expects these days when discussing politics. This piece in The Economist brings Immanuel Kant into the mix. They are decidedly attempting to make the case that your single vote does matter. Their basic arguments revolve around the profound peripheral impact of your vote (possible benefits to others, etc.), and an argument based on “it’s simply the logical thing to do”. As the author puts it: “If we view voting as an activity that expresses our democratic citizenship, our concern for our fellow citizens, our hope for the future…we have good reason to vote.” The caveat being that in the end, the author also literally says “I like this concept”, effectively surrendering to the fact that there is nothing empirical about their argument.
This piece by Jason Brennan on the Princeton University Press Blog takes an almost hostile tone, but also makes some interesting points. He uses the analogies of uninformed jurors deciding the fates of others, or firing squads that you have a choice of whether or not to take part in as a shooter. Raising the stakes in simple analogies like these can highlight an aspect of this that you might otherwise overlook, which I’ll paraphrase here as the argument that “If you’re as ignorant or misinformed as most voters are, you should just put that I VOTED sticker in your pocket rather than wearing it, because you’re simply highlighting one of the flaws of our style of democracy”.
So What Is The Actual Impact Of Your Single Vote?
In the presidential election, pretty meager. According to this UC Berkley analysis (PDF) by Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin, on average, a voter in America has a 1 in 60 million chance of being decisive in the presidential election. But in the summary section of the paper, they expand on the realities connected to this simplistic statistical fact:
A probability of 1 in 10 million is tiny…but can provide a rational reason for voting; in this perspective, a vote is like a lottery ticket with a 1 in 10 million chance of winning, but the payoff is the chance to change national policy and improve (one hopes) the lives of hundreds of millions, compared to the alternative if the other candidate were to win…On the other hand, for voters in states such as New York, California, and Texas where the probability of a decisive vote is closer to 1 in a billion, any reasons for voting must go beyond the any instrumental rationality.
So Am I Voting?
So has this changed my non-committal position on voting in the general election? Nope. Another factor we haven’t even touched on here is the considerable impact that can be achieved through ongoing civic engagement, voting in more localized elections, or even radical activism. All of which I’d gladly engage in if I felt the government of the country I live in were headed in a direction that is not beneficial to the general populace.
Which has clearly been happening.
See you at the rally!