Why vote?

Over the last couple months, I’ve asked a bunch of people about voting. Why do it, why not, and why would it even matter either way?

For the majority of political races, one single vote makes statistically zero difference in the overall outcome of the election. Add to that the hassle of researching who to vote for, finding out where and how to vote, possibly waiting in lines, and all the social nonsense that accompanies your decisions. You figure out pretty quickly that if there is a reason to vote, it’s not a practical one.

There are even jokes among economists because, as Patricia Funk claims, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”

Instead, the decision to vote is ideological. If you’re going to vote at all, you’re going to do it because it’s what you think you should do, not because of the concrete results it creates.

Fine, I love economics, but I also love philosophy. I’m all for idealism. So what are the ideals that should drive us to vote?

And… that’s where I get hung up. I’m not so sure there are any great reasons to vote, even on principle. Sure, plenty of people offer what they think are wonderful reasons. I’m just not sure they’re that great. In fact, I think most of them are pretty lame, actually, and those lame reasons only make me question the principle of voting even more, instead of convincing me to embrace it.

Here are a few that I (and no doubt you) have heard.

The Martyr Principle

“People have died so you can vote.”

That’s right, kind of. People have died so I’d have the right to vote. They didn’t die to get me to vote. They died to give me the opportunity. Exercising the right is implied.

Okay, so opportunity granted. I accept that. But that doesn’t mean I accept the implied obligation…

The Duty Principle

“It’s your obligation as an American.”

If a vote were held on whether or not we should make voting mandatory, I’d vote against it. And I think even some of the people who died for the right would fight against the mandatory obligation.

I don’t want everyone voting. I don’t want idiots voting. I only want smart people who genuinely care to vote. If that describes you, go out and vote. You don’t need me to tell you. If it doesn’t, stay home. Don’t buy into obligation pressure.

The spirit behind voting is the right for the individual citizen to choose. It’s about creating personal freedom. But an obligation limits freedom. My right to keep silent is as much mine as my right to free speech, but they’re not obligations. And neither is voting.

[Of course, this is where someone says it might not specifically be my obligation to vote, but it is my duty to do what’s best for the country. Problem with that argument is that I’m still waiting to see how my individual vote actually makes any difference for the country as a whole…]

The Complainer Principle

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

First: complaining is lame no matter how you slice it. If you don’t like something, get up and do something about it. Voting might be one way to do it, but it’s certainly not the only way. Either way, though, whether you vote or not, don’t complain – change stuff.

Second: is this seriously an argument for voting? Think about what you’re saying. Are we voting to buy the right to complain? Is that the best we’ve got?

Third: if anyone has a right to complain, it’s the people who purposely don’t vote. That sounds a bit crazy, so let me put it in a different perspective.

Someone tells you to pick someone to shoot in the head. Would you have more of a right to complain if you picked someone to shoot or refused to?

Sure, that’s an extreme example, but what I’m getting at is that anyone who votes gives tacit consent to the system. If someone doesn’t like the system to begin with, how does playing by its rules give them more of a right to change or overthrow it or even just complain about it?

The What If Principle

“What if everyone didn’t vote?”

This is nonsense, and I’ve written about it before. The fact is, people are voting. You and I can’t base our decisions on a hypothetical situation when a concrete situation is in front of us.

What if everyone was a plumber or made pizza for a living? That wouldn’t work either. But it’s still fine for you and I to be plumbers or make pizzas. The logic doesn’t hold up.

The Citizen Principle

“Voting seals your status as a citizen. It’s what citizens do.”

I’m guessing that most people who purposely question the value of voting might also purposely question the value of being a citizen… or least question what it means to be one.

But assuming someone does really want to be a citizen, it’s still not clear that voting has anything to do with that. Citizenship, at least in the USA for now, doesn’t change as a result of how you vote or even whether or not you decide to vote. And by the numbers, the majority of citizens don’t vote at all.

So this argument, taken literally, isn’t accurate. Instead, it’s not really trying to say that citizens do vote – it’s trying to say that citizens should vote. But of course that just brings us back to the first question: why should we?

The Example Principle

“Showing up at the poll on voting day sets a good example for others.”

In my opinion, of all the reasons I’m shooting down here, this is the strongest one. For some people, I think it’s a legitimate reason.

For example, talk radio show hosts should vote for this reason. Same for any number of other outspoken people who have strong followings, like Oprah. They should vote, not so much because their single vote makes any difference, but because their vote influences many, many others. And that combined influence can actually make a practical difference in an election.

The problem with this reasoning, though, is that people like to extend it to everyone. But I don’t think it’s valid for everyone. The average person doesn’t have that much influence, so that person’s example won’t make much difference.

Taking that further, what about an even better option for influence? Instead of spending, say, an hour on voting activities, why not spend that hour campaigning? Knock on doors, stand on a street corner with a sign, or even just get on the phone to try to get friends out to vote. I bet that would have more influence than you simply casting your single ballot.

So why am I voting in 2010?

The question is, if I’ve shot down all these other reasons, why am I choosing to vote this year? Well, I’m definitely still in limbo here, but for now, here’s why I’m voting:

Because people smarter than me, people I respect, say I should. I’m trusting them.

I’m calling it…

The Trust Principle

Maybe it seems like a cop-out because I don’t have a first-person reason for voting. But for now, it’s the best I’ve got.

Care to help me out? I’d love to hear your reasons for voting or for choosing not to…