No Vote Is Ever Wasted (Part 1 of 2)
In the 2016 election, over 96,421,000 eligible voters didn’t vote. That’s over 41% of the electorate. Turnout was the lowest in two decades.
Health problems or extraordinary circumstances certainly affected at least a few million of those people. From the rest we hear a consistent handful of excuses for not voting. Let’s explore these excuses one-by-one.
1) I don’t completely agree with any of the candidates.
America’s two-party system provides voters only two policy mixes, and most must choose a candidate they agree with on issue A but not issue B.
For anyone who doesn’t perfectly align with either party platform across all issues, voting can feel like compromising some of their values.
However, voting is not some kind of exercise in moral purity. No one should feel any sense of pride or ethical superiority for a decision to boycott democracy and let fewer people pick our leaders.
Failing to vote doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for supporting our values. In fact, by not voting, we abandon all of our values. Somewhere, another voter who disagrees with us on everything did vote, and our positions became less influential as a result.
If our various positions on abortion, guns, human rights, taxes, trade, and war don’t align with a lot of our fellow citizens, we are definitely not alone. In fact, even those who vote with a majority can quibble with their favored party’s choice for office. We will never get to vote for a full set of candidates who endorse our full set of views. Does that mean we drop out and let the die-hard partisans rule us?
Of course not! Having issues with the major candidates means we are “swing voters,” a subset of voters with comparatively larger influence on the election and on policy! If we let our views be known, the politicians will listen.
We should at least vote against the person who least represents our values. That’s a much easier task than waiting for the perfect candidate.
2) They’re all rotten.
This claim should be falling out of favor as we become more aware of fake news and hyper-negative propaganda. Being a cynic is naïve in a political environment where political actors try to sow disillusionment among voters for the other side, in a deliberate attempt to discourage some category of voters.
If something in the media made us not want to vote, it’s fair to say people who crafted that exact message to achieve that exact goal have manipulated us.
Second, it is important to remember we’re not voting for our next spouse or some shining moral exemplar who will inspire our kids to turn their lives around. We’re hiring a public employee. All that matters are the policies and laws they pass or block, and their wisdom to deal with foreign policy and emergencies.
Rational voters don’t care about a candidate’s looks, their families, their charisma, or whether they make a funny face during one of the shouting matches we call debates. Rational voters absolutely don’t care if clickbait news dot facebook says a candidate conspired with the mafia to kill kittens.
3) My vote is just a drop in the bucket.
Another common excuse for not voting is the claim that any one person’s vote is meaningless in the context of millions of votes. Therefore, the claim goes, it is more rational to watch Netflix, pay bills, or goof off on Facebook than vote.
Oh wait, those are all things we can do if there’s a line at the poll.
Stated another way, “Unless my preferred candidate wins the election by my one vote, my vote makes no difference.”
When we say our one vote doesn’t matter, it’s safe to assume we would apply the same logic to our friend’s vote too.
Would 20 of your friends’ votes matter? Would 1,000 votes matter? A million? Where should we draw an arbitrary line between numbers that matter and don’t matter?
Allow me to introduce the Continuum Fallacy. Inventing an arbitrary number of votes that matter is a perfect illustration.
Ask an activist; every vote matters.
Also, consider a politician’s point of view. Suppose you are a politician solely interested in winning re-election.
What if you won the last election with 70% of the vote? Clearly, you have a mandate to relentlessly pursue your ideological direction. The biggest threat to your political career is a primary challenge within your own party, by a candidate more extreme than yourself. So to guard against that possibility, you shift your position further to the outsides of the political spectrum.
In this scenario, anyone who disagreed with you made a tragic decision by not voting. Maybe they knew you would probably win, so they stayed home and contributed to your landslide victory. Yet, your ideological shift wasn’t due to winning; it was due to the margin of winning. The people who failed to vote against you caused their own worst-case outcome.
Now imagine you won the last election with only 50.5% of the vote. You barely won, and your best chance of keeping your job is to move to the center and avoid antagonizing more people who might vote against you. You’ll spend more time campaigning than working on legislation.
In this second scenario, the politician was primarily influenced by the people who voted against him or her. The voters who “lost” the election ended up controlling government policy!
Freethinkers Must Vote, And Organize
There are no good excuses not to vote. Freethinkers interested in effective enfranchisement of our values should refute these excuses whenever they are heard.
Yet, if we truly care about an issue, there is still more we can do. We can send an even stronger signal to the politicians by joining a visible coalition of voters. Next week’s post will explore how voters multiply their influence through organization, and how this tactic has tipped the scales of government policy throughout American history.