It’s time for my biennial plea for you to abstain from voting. I’ve got my work cut out for me: As election season (mercifully) draws to an end, we’ve reached the time of year when everyone and their mother takes time to urge you to vote, no matter who you vote for, as if the mere act of casting a vote is somehow worthwhile.
What goes conspicuously unmentioned in all these pleas to vote is the simple fact that your vote is extremely unlikely to make a difference. This is nothing but a statement of mathematical fact: The odds of an election in which millions of votes are cast being decided by one vote* are essentially zero. Even in smaller, more local races, or elections that are extremely close, the odds of your vote being decisive are still incredibly small. The only elections that have been decided by one vote were races in which fewer than 10,000 votes were cast.
*This site, which purports to list historic elections decided by one vote, basically proves the point: The list goes back almost 400 years and includes only 33 votes, almost all of which were actually votes by various legislatures, not popular elections. Although a Congressional race in New York’s 36th District was apparently decided by one vote in 1910.**
**It’s also worth pointing out that races that are this close are more likely to be decided by how the votes are counted than the votes themselves. As the 2000 Presidential race in Florida and the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota show, different recounts are capable of changing the outcome.
This makes arguments for voting that are based on pure cost-benefit analysis hard to defend. And yet, in this election, many liberals are upset with President Obama and many conservatives are not satisfied with Mitt Romney. Nevertheless, supporters of both feel that their candidate is at least better than the alternative, and often continue their support on “consequentialist” grounds: the effects of electing one candidate will be marginally better than the effects of electing the other.
But why should this matter, unless you are under the (mistaken) impression that your vote will decide the election? To take a “consequentialist” position on a decision that has no real consequences is disingenuous at best and cynical at worst.
The only real arguments in defense of voting, then, are the symbolic ones. Admittedly, these are the ones you hear more often: People talking about the importance of “making your voice heard” or “participating in the electoral process” or “exercising your basic rights.” I am receptive to these ideas in theory: I think some things are worth doing for purely symbolic reasons, but the symbolic effects of voting are actually deceptively nefarious.
For one, the “symbolic” meaning of a vote for a candidate is entirely opaque. Choosing one candidate over another often cannot really say anything substantive. Is a vote for Romney a rejection of President Obama’s handling of the economy? Is it an endorsement of Romney’s economic plan? His foreign policy? All of these things? Some of them? It is impossible to determine these things via an election because they are all jumbled together, and eventually obscured by things like personality, advertising, gaffes, one-liners, debate performance, and stump speeches.
More importantly, it is often impossible to tell ahead of time what your “symbolic” vote will ultimately mean. In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a conservative foreign policy and against nation building. Of course, once he was elected, he embarked on two of the most ambitious (and doomed) nation building exercises in American history. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on ending those wars and restoring civil liberties. Since taking office, he has extended the war in Afghanistan, dramatically expanded the use of drones in nations America has not declared war on, renewed the Patriot Act, and sought and received unprecedented powers to detain American citizens.
These are not anomalous examples. Every President in American history has some broken campaign promises, some more egregious than others. But surely voters have felt betrayed when the principles that led them to support a candidate were then abandoned once that election was over. And yet there is no way to “symbolically” express this nuance.
The last argument I often hear in defense of voting is something like, “So what? My vote may not be a perfect symbol, but it at least signals who I think is the best candidate. He may eventually let me down, but he may also accomplish what I hope he does. So what’s the downside of casting a vote optimistically?”
To this I say that, while it is indeed uncertain what your vote will come to signify once someone is elected, there are things we know to be true about voting. Namely, the power it has to legitimize things that are inherently illegitimate. This is true in an international sense—think, for example, about how America’s efforts to overthrow foreign leaders are perceived when those leaders are democratically elected versus when they are not—but it is also true in a domestic sense. Votes, no matter whom they are cast for, reinforce the status quo. They allow governments to claim they have the support of the people and they lead people to think that their government is responsive.
And yet the current American government has claimed powers that are synonymous with tyranny: the power to execute its citizens without due process, the power to indemnify the powerful against criminal prosecution, and the power to go to war with no real oversight. In any other context, we would be quick to label these powers tyrannical, but American citizens, in general, accept them. Why? Because we are given the nominal power to choose our leaders. The right to vote, it seems, makes up for the infringement of every other freedom.
Votes are a drug. Like any drug, they provide users with the illusion of power and control while simultaneously encouraging inaction. Refusing to vote, of course, won’t automatically undo the excesses of government, but it will at least keep you from being complicit. You may not be able to overthrow the government, but you don’t have to support it.