- No candidate has exactly what I'm looking for. I don't respect any of them, and I conscientiously refuse to vote for someone whom I don't respect.
- The two candidates both suck. I won't vote for the lesser of two evils.
- If I refuse to vote, then maybe politicians will get the message that they should offer better candidates, because there aren't any that I can get behind now.
- One person's vote is so inconsequential that I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning on election day than I have of personally affecting the outcome of the election.
I'm going to hit each of these points in turn.
1. No candidate has exactly what I'm looking for. I don't respect any of them, and I conscientiously refuse to vote for someone whom I don't respect.
As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, "You go to the polls with the candidates you have, not the candidates you might want or wish to have." Let's say you've decided to sit out every election until you finally encounter the candidate who's a left-handed green-eyed atheist libertarian who will institute the flat tax and can sing classical opera. I can guarantee you that you, my friend, will be sitting out every election of your entire life.
But let's say a candidate finally comes along who's a right-handed green-eyed agnostic libertarian who will institute some kinds of tax reforms (not the exact ones you want) and plays the tuba. And let's say the other guy in the race is George W. Bush. Are you really telling me that you're going to sit out on principle because you only like southpaws?
There are a lot of people in the world who could be running for president, but only a few of them are. The stronger you make your qualifications that are required to get your vote, the more you are guaranteed to be disenfranchised from the process. Which brings me to...
2. The two candidates both suck. I won't vote for the lesser of two evils.
Oh, I see. Then you won't mind if the greater of two evils wins. Suppose you've been kidnapped and imprisoned by a sadistic dictator, and he gives a choice between being punched once in the face or being slowly and painfully flayed alive for four hours. Would you say "Ah, who cares? Both things are evil, so either way I'll get hurt. Pick whichever one you want." I don't know about you, but in that situation I'd be saying "Punch me in the face, please!"
In the first place, I don't buy the fact that both candidates are evil. Like committing to a lifelong relationship with a person of the opposite sex (or same, if that's your thing), I guarantee that you will never find a person who is without flaws. When confronted with these flaws, you can either say "Sorry, imperfect match detected; no votes for you" or you can take the bad with the good and pick the person who is clearly the best available, warts and all.
In the second place, even if both candidates represent a net dislike for you, that still doesn't mean that your choice is irrelevant. Again, do you want to get punched once or flayed for hours? Easy choice: pick the outcome which is best for me.
3. If I refuse to vote, or write in "Mickey Mouse" on my ballot, then maybe politicians will get the message that they should offer better candidates, because there aren't any that I can get behind now.
Yes, of course they will. And then everybody will magically receive a million dollars and a pony from the sky.
Look, I hate to say this, but a vote is not a treatise on the state of our nation. If you want to send a message, start a blog. A friend of mine likes to say that voting has very low bandwidth: each person gets to transmit only one bit every four years. There's not a lot to resolve there about what your vote "means."
Most people in this country don't vote most of the time. There are countless reasons why somebody might not vote. Maybe all the candidates are too liberal. Maybe all the candidates are too conservative. Maybe the voter only supports left-handed green-eyed atheist libertarian candidates who will institute the flat tax and can sing classical opera. Or maybe the voters just couldn't muster the energy to get off their lazy asses and transmit their one bit this year.
When you're looking at election results, do you hear those messages? No. The ONLY information transmitted in the election is: "X voters voted, one candidate won by Y percentage points." That's it. Maybe you get more information out of news coverage and interviews, but that is true regardless of whether people vote or not.
If the greater of two evils wins, what's the strongest message that got sent? "Most people prefer this candidate to the other one. He must have done something right." Then, guess what happens four years later? Both candidates try to be more like the guy who won. Over time, the landscape drifts in the direction that people push it. Not voting, and even voting for somebody that you already know isn't going to win, rarely has an effect other than that of bolstering the person who wins.
I'm talking to YOU, Ralph Nader and entourage.
4. One person's vote is so inconsequential that I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning on election day than I have of personally affecting the outcome of the election.
Sure. This one is true. But there's a significant fallacy involved.
Clearly there is little chance that the margin of victory will be a single vote, so the chance that YOUR vote is going to make the difference is very, very remote. Conceivably if you just stayed home on election day and didn't mention it, your influence on the election would be pretty much invisible.
But that's not all that people do when they announce "I'm not voting because my vote doesn't matter." They're not only choosing not to vote; they're also proclaiming that not voting is a better option. In doing so, they are, to some extent, influencing others who might agree with their own positions to do the same. And by convincing like minds to also not vote, this is spreading a "don't vote" meme across a broad population. The act of not voting may not influence the outcome, but the meme certainly does.
This isn't an academic issue; the use of memes that say "do vote" or "don't vote" has been used very effectively by special interest groups. For instance, one of the reasons that the religious right has been so successful at gaining disproportionate influence in government is that they have organized communication channels, mailing lists and church announcements and such, which mobilize their congregants to vote. This is a big message that DJ Groethe of the Center for Inquiry drove home for me once, showing materials such as Mind Siege, which end-times crackpot Tim LaHaye uses to frighten fundamentalists into voting (and also sending money). The basic message is that if YOU PERSONALLY don't take action IN THIS ELECTION, then the fags will make gay marriage mandatory for everyone and the evilutionists will jail all dissenters.
Strictly speaking, this isn't the truth. But the effect that this message has is very real. And likewise, sending the inverse message to people -- that voting is stupid and a waste of time -- ALSO has a genuine effect on overall turnout. Memes have a ripple effect. Maybe your vote won't sway the election, and maybe your message about not voting won't sway the election either. But people who are persuaded not to vote also have this tendency of replicating the meme and encouraging other people not to vote.
So, in fact, I choose to believe that my attitude about voting -- in addition to my vote -- makes a difference. It's a straight up Prisoner's Dilemma decision: "cooperate" and vote for the best alternative you can locate, even if it's inconvenient, or "defect" and stay home. Though your vote may not count, everyone who agrees with you and stays home will practically translate to one half of a vote for whoever they believe to be the worst candidate.
On the other hand, few things delight me more than hearing somebody say "I voted for Bush twice, but I don't think I'm voting in this election." Sure, I'd prefer that they decide to vote for Obama (or even Clinton) instead, but given that this is a semi-rare event, I want to encourage them to continue "protesting" the Republican by not voting for him. "Go, dude!" I say. "Keep registering that protest and not voting! Refuse to vote Republican because there's not a crazy enough apocalyptic dominionist left in the bunch! That'll show those jerks who's boss! And if necessary, I hope you continue to not vote for as long as it takes, even if it's your whole life, until you get exactly what you want."
So in conclusion, don't just vote: convince those with whom you agree to vote. And make sure that the people with whom you disagree are good and surly about their candidates this year.