“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman
Sarah Siskind has been gracious enough to attempt to persuade me to do my civic duty and show up at the polls. However, none of Sarah’s points manage to convince me to change my persuasion. Allow me to explain.
Sarah first argues that the margin of a victory, and not simply the outcome of an election, has an effect on subsequent government policy: though a single vote might not serve as a tie-breaker, it can nevertheless serve a purpose by contributing to the margin of victory, thus helping to contribute further legitimacy to the winning candidate, or take some of that legitimacy away from him. But even when my vote serves only this purpose, my initial point about the futility of a single vote still stands. In the last presidential election, for example, Barack Obama won by a margin of over 9 million votes. The marginal contribution of one vote to such a large sum is, again, effectively nothing. It would be silly to claim that President Obama lacks a resounding electoral mandate because he received only 9 million votes, instead of 9m + 1. For good measure, Sarah also throws in an additional quip concerning the (un)importance of one vote, “Still, no matter how unlikely, one out of ten million is infinitely more than zero” – which is undoubtedly true, but I question it’s relevance to the issue at hand. The other ten million votes cast in this example are also infinite proportional to zero. This is not the relevant question. Rather, what actually matters is the relative power of my single vote compared to that of the ten million others in an election. One and ten million may both be infinitely greater than zero, but ten million is ten million times greater than one.
The second point, concerning immediacy, is a good one: political battles indeed go beyond simply a single election. A single vote may seem futile within the context of one election, but it may actually have some effect on future elections. However, this argument again fails to prove how the absence of my single vote will have a substantial impact upon future political contests. The fact remains that an individual vote, in any presidential election, remains effectively useless because it has no discernible effect either on the electoral outcome or the margin of victory. This argument also fails to address why voting in particular constitutes the most effective method of political involvement. This sort of argument should instead hold that at least engaging in activities other than voting can have a more substantial and meaningful impact on future elections. The space of four years between election cycles gives a person not just one, but several (maybe hundreds or thousands) of opportunities to influence the votes of others (more than my single vote).
Sarah also correctly points out that there does not exist an exclusive choice between writing and voting as a form of civic engagement, but this alone also does not demonstrate that there exists a civic duty to vote. Again, a large part of my skepticism about the duty to vote stems from the fact that voting remains an effectively useless way to make any sort of difference in public policy.
But even a situation in which my vote does make a difference – even if the addition or the absence of my one vote could make a difference in influencing a candidate’s chances of victory, or the margin by which he can claim a strong electoral mandate – would still give me a reason to refuse to cast a ballot. In this case, one could think of my decision to refuse to vote as a “vote” against the reigning political establishment. In the current climate in which the political orthodoxies of both parties are often indistinguishable (especially on issues of importance to libertarians), I do not wish to have a say in deciding which party I want to lead the counterproductive War on Terror, continue prosecuting our failed War on Drugs, spend the nation into even deeper debt, trample the civil liberties of American citizens, spend taxpayer money on electoral favorites, and ridicule those who challenge this “commonsense” orthodoxy as “crazy.” I wish neither party to rule at all. If Sarah is correct in asserting that my single vote can help to either legitimize or delegitimize a particular candidate, then I wish to make my vote twice as effective: delegitimize them both!
In any case, Sarah also points out that, given the non-exclusivity of voting and writing and conversation as a means of exercising political influence and fulfilling one’s civic duty, and also given the low cost which I would incur by voting, that I should still vote. But Sarah makes a fundamental methodological mistake in this respect: by extrapolating a particular cost and a particular structure of preferences to me. But she can’t do that. She does not know what my set of preferences are at any given moment, and much less my opportunity costs. This point may seem abstract, but it is fundamental and important. Given that she’s brought up the concept of utility here, Sarah is in no position to judge whether or not voting is “worth it” for me, because evaluating such a decision requires information that is in my mind, in no one else’s: arguably, it is fundamentally incommunicable. She can only do that for herself. Anything beyond this assumes too much. I might be lazy (I probably am), I might not. In either case, I have better things to do.
Sarah votes. Good for her. I refuse to vote. Good for me. Why can’t we both be happy here?