Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why your vote matters

It happens every four years at about this time: some people (and I won't name names here) start proudly announcing the fact that they don't see any point in voting. Why? Well, a variety of reasons, generally including several of these points:

  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.
  2. The two candidates both suck. I won't vote for the lesser of two evils.
  3. 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.
  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.

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.


  1. Anonymous5:19 PM


  2. I agree good friend! Alot of my apathetic friends get like this come voting season. I plead and plead with them to vote for their best choice. I think more people will vote this time around, considering its most likely going to be McCain and Obama going at it. McCain isn't your typical nutty right winger and Obama can appeal to both sides of the spectrum. Should be interesting.

  3. Surly is the word of the day. It sounds like a kid who says "If you don't play with my rules, I'm gonna take my vote and go home."

  4. There's also fields of buried American heros who gave it all up for our right to vote.

  5. Anonymous10:39 AM

    I'm not seeing as much indifference this year among friends as I have in the past. Obama's shifting the paradigm, even pulling in senior citizens in the early vote in 80%-Republican Gillespie County (LBJ-land.) For the first time since 1964, Texas may just go Democrat in this presdiential race, whihc would be a real sign that we've shed the shameful vestiges of the Dixiecrats forever. Even a jaded 45-year old observer like me is rather impressed by what I'm seeing.

  6. Anonymous11:35 PM

    I want to encourage them to continue "protesting" the Republican by not voting for him

    You should go to a church social, or a redneck bar, or something, and strike up a conversation with a likely Republican voter. After it's become apparent that you're a liberal atheist and he's a conservative dominionist, tell him that your votes would cancel out, so why not agree that neither one of you will vote this November?

    Then go to twenty more places and do the same thing.

  7. I agree with your post, and I always vote. And I really love your friend's "one bit every four years" analysis.

    Here are my nitpicks:

    First, I don't agree an election result is just who won by how much. That voting for someone you know won't win rarely has a good effect.

    It's more how many votes *every* candidate got, so parties can slide their views towards all vote-getters next time. Even 3rd party candidate votes matter, as has been evidenced in the past by parties like Pat Buchanan's. He ran for Pres in 92 and 96 because the Republican platform wasn't zealot-y enough. So the Republican party tried harder to win the religious zealot vote in 2000, and he had no reason to run.

    Second, if you think announcing you're not voting because your vote doesn't matter is a worth-mentioning meme, then it's tough to argue that folks who announce "I'm voting for Nadar because my vote matters" spread a similar meme with similar effect.

    To blatantly steal your words, they're not just avoiding a big-two candidate, they're also saying that voting 3rd party is a better option, and are influencing others who might agree with their own positions to do the same. And by convincing like minds to also vote 3rd party, this is spreading a "don't vote Big-Two" meme across a broad population. The act of voting for Nadar may not influence the outcome, but the meme certainly does.

    Third, I'm more of Jeff Dee's mind, that actively teaching or encouraging something you think is a lie is almost never a good idea. So the idea that actively discouraging voting is a good meme to spread -- even for those who disagree with you -- really rubs me the wrong way.

    Discouraging voting by making people disgusted with politics in general is a successful tactic used by republicans (Karl Rove in particular). I get that this is game theory, and that in games you should adopt tactics that win rather than complain about how cheesy or evil the winner's tactics were. But I believe that's true only in things like games, where concerns about ethics have no real-world consequences.

    I think in the real world, you have to weigh the consequences of your actions. The "ends" of winning an election may not justify the "means" of convincing others that politics (or voting) is pointless, especially since that "means" does not stop once the election is over.

    Like Dan Barker has said, I can imagine a case where the ethical thing to do is to be deceitful. But not, I think, in the case of political activism. There I think demonstrating facts and dispelling myths, though not as easy or seductive as the dark side, is still the right way to go.

  8. Hello,

    I just think you forgot one of the reasons to "not vote" and was wondering what you have to convince a disenfranchised voter.

    5. The super delegates legally can (since they are all so much more enlightened than me) and in many cases probably will vote however they feel, my vote probably won't matter anyway.

  9. Delete this if you must since it has nothing to do with the current subject but since I am being censored again by cry baby Martin you would of never of received this. Forgive me.

    You said "Experiencing something does not translate to knowing it. You ought to see the movie Memento sometime." Under your advice I saw the movie Memento and I thought it was a good one. Thanks for the recommendation, a psychological thriller "who done it" to say the least.

    I don't actually know how to comment on that movie quite yet but I just wanted to let you know that I did/do listen and try to understand as well as get you all to understand.

    BTW to get back on tract and for the record I am still going to write in Dr. Ron Paul for president. He is a doctor (healthcare) that was in the military (foreign policy) who is also a congressman (policies and taxes), he is the only one qualified and knows how to fix this mess.

    He is the only one that deserves our vote. God help us all if he doesn't win.

    Get your affairs in order everyone, get right with God because the prophecies are coming to fruition. The number of the beast is probably the real ID card due to be law in May of 2008. The rapture is close don't be left behind all. lol

    My recommendation to you my friend, if you haven't seen it, is America: Freedom to Fascism

    Again thanks and take care.

  10. Thank you, Dan! I was being a little flip when I recommended Memento, and I didn't really think you'd watch it, but it is one of my favorite movies of the last decade.

    Now that I'm thinking about the movie again, I want to write a longer blog post again sometime. But here's why I think Memento is so relevant to the nature of the discussion.

    In Memento, Lenny's character gives an important speech about how memory is unreliable. But he believes he can count on three things:

    1. The rightness of getting closure for his wife's murder.
    2. The story of Sammy Jankis.
    3. The notes he writes to himself in tattoo form.

    The end of the movie yanks the rug out from under these beliefs, not once, but for all three beliefs. They lead you down this trail, thinking that when you dig far enough back into the past, you'll find the answers to everything else. Instead, you get to the "end" of the movie (really the beginning, in a way) and they hit you with new revelations, wham wham wham, too fast to catch your breath between them.

    First you find out that his wife's attacker was already caught, so his entire quest to avenge her since then has been pointless.

    Then you find out that he got the story of Sammy all wrong, that many of the events were about him, and that he may have actually killed his own wife.

    THEN you find out that he lied to himself in his own notes.

    Why did I recommend the movie in this context? What I took from the movie is not that no amount of evidence is sufficient to accept a claim, but that relying on directly experiencing something is almost never reliable. I can decline to believe in someone's experiences, but that doesn't mean I think they're trying to deceive me. The character of Lenny is not stupid and he's not entirely malicious, he's just going with events as they happen to him and trying to make sense of an array of personal experience which are even more jumbled than most people's.

    And although you and I don't have Lenny's "condition," the movie really kind of makes you think about the questionable nature of how much your memories and feelings, and even things that are "common knowledge," can an accurate source of understanding reality.

    Regarding Ron Paul: I've heard a lot about him and done plenty of reading. I agree with him on the war, or very nearly. I disagree with him on just about every other position he holds. I think he's an interesting candidate, don't have anything against his supporters, but I'm not too disappointed that he won't win.

    Anyway, thanks for writing, and glad to hear you liked the movie.