The responsability of voting

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The 2016 presidential election is growing closer by the minute. Very soon, the United States of America will have chosen their new president for at least four years, except if some crazy nutjob assassinates the winner. This is definitely a very real possibility this time, but I guess we just have to hope for the best.

I’m pretty sure most people already know this, but this choice is made by voting. Specifically, any citizen in the country over the minimum age and not currently in prison can cast one single vote for the candidate that they hate the least. Some states have slightly different systems, like allowing people to vote from prison, but that’s the general idea.

Every time there’s an important election, we hear a ton of people urging us to go vote. A lot of people fought very hard to give us the right to vote, so we should use it, or at least that’s usually part of the reasoning behind that. Of course, we all know that when a candidate tries to motivate “everyone” to move and go vote, they know that the people currently listening are mostly their own base, and they aren’t really encouraging their opponents to vote. Also, I wouldn’t expect any candidate to actually, sincerely, want as many people as possible to make the effort of going to the voting booth only to then vote against them. There’s being fair, and there’s actively wishing your own failure. I can forgive, and even expect that kind of selfish thinking.

Every time, we also hear people say that they will skip voting “this year”. Those are not always the same people, and the reasons greatly vary. Some people just can’t be bothered. Some people think that their vote is statistically insignificant (which actually is true, when you do the math). Some people just don’t care about the outcome, maybe they hate all candidates equally or something like that. Some people literally procrastinate and eventually run out of time on election day.

Even if a single vote has incredibly slim odds of actually mattering in the actual result, big groups of voters are very important as a whole. That’s why every candidate is desesperate to increase voter turnout at least in their own base.

Also, according to this interesting piece of completely anectodal evidence, and pretty much everyone I’ve talked to recently, most people will probably vote for a candidate they don’t like this year.

So, is it justified to skip voting?

Personnally, I don’t think anyone should be required to vote for a couple reasons, but I still encourage them to do so.

By the way, feel free to replace “wrong candidate” with whichever candidate you personnally hate when reading the rest of this post, and “right candidate” with the one you like more or hate less. It is psychologically proven to make my point look smarter if you feel like I agree with your political opinion, even if I literally just told you that I’m doing it just to sound smarter.

First of all, I believe that not caring is a perfectly valid opinion. The whole point of democracy is to give everyone the chance to give their opinions, and this should include people who either don’t care, or refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils. On the other hand, I want to make something clear. If you don’t care about the election of a president who could potentially rule your country, which is one of the most powerful countries in the world, for up to eight years, then you will look like an idiot to me. But that’s an opinion. People who vote for the candidate that I hate the most will also receive this mental label, because I am a biased human being who is being brainwashed into political polarization all the time. Not caring is exactly on the same level as being wrong in my mind. I will still respect you as a person, I will do my best to hear you out and try to understand your point of view, and I will not let a difference of opinion like that affect whatever relationship we have. But I will still believe that you are wrong, just like you will think that I am.

Basically, I think of not voting as the same thing as voting for the wrong candidate, which is definitely allowed. The problem mostly resides in the fact that instead of taking a side and instantly looking dumb in the eyes of your opponents, you will probably look dumb in the eyes of both sides, so think it through carefully. Nobody is immune to basic psychology, and you might make a lot of people mad at you, even if they are definitely not justified in being mad. Obviusly, you can always pretend that you voted, but that would be lying, and lying is usually bad.

From a purely statistical perspective, your personal vote is worth nothing. There are more than 235 000 000 people allowed to vote in the United States, so even with 50% turnout, your vote is worth less than 0,00000086% of the election. Even if going to vote only required 5 minutes of your time, this would probably not be worth it unless the result of the election literally could make you get or lose billions of dollars, even even then it would probably be a better use of your time and/or money to simply make a donation to one of the campaigns. Obviously, if everyone thought like that, then nobody would vote, and that would cause problems. But if you take into account that every person who skips voting due to that logic will also make every other vote more valuable, at some point before the “nobody voted” scenario, votes would become valuable again, therefore avoiding that outcome. I respect that reason to skip voting, and think it is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, I personnally won’t use it, because I think there is more at stake in an election than my personal money. If, for example, I feel like a candidate is more likely to start a war for whatever reason and get thousand of people killed, that’s a very bad scenario. Even if I don’t believe any candidate will definitely start a war, the odds are not zero, and one of them always “feels” more likely than the other. That’s my counter-argument. If you don’t care about human lives, or if you don’t think either candidate is more risky than the other on that point, then you’re free to use your time in a more productive activity than voting. Other good reasons to vote even if it’s statistically useless would be personal responsibility, like at least trying the best you can to help the country. Even then, as Scott Adams said, it’s probably a lot more efficient to try to convince your opponents to skip voting than to actually vote yourself, but this can be morally questionnable.


Credit: Dilbert

I have also heard several times this year people say that they wouldn’t vote because they refused to give a vote to someone they personnally hated, even if the opponent was even worse. As a principle, they wouldn’t give a vote to a despicable individual just because they happened to run against a horrible individual. This one also seems perfectly acceptable. Hypothica had a couple posts explaining the reasoning a few months ago, and it made a lot of sense to me. Basically, voting for the lesser of two evils might be good in the short term, compared to the alternative, but it actually gives the message to that “lesser evil” that they are what the people want, instead of making them understand that they suck and that we want better.

Instead, as an alternative, you should consider your own vote as not a binary choice between helping candidate A or B, but as a very small spectrum with three options. Either you help A, you do nothing or you help B. Actually giving A your vote makes them earn a two votes value in the matchup, because the worst you could do for A was voting B. Voting A gives them one extra vote, and removes a vote from their opponent, creating a two-votes swing. Not voting (or voting third party if they don’t have a decent chance of victory) actually denies both candidates one single vote. Seeing things this way actually makes the “not voting” choice easier. You aren’t wasting a valuable right to vote that people fought to give you, you are simply exercising it to attack both candidates because you disagree with them. You don’t hurt either of them as hard as by voting for their opponent, because you only have a total swing value of two at your disposal, so this option is only justified when both are despicable and almost as despicable as each other. It is simply another way to split your swing value. Yes, I know that this makes no difference as opposed to you simply not existing, but arguably your vote is worth so little that there would barely be any difference anyway. Voting is definitely a personal decision depending your principles anyway, so it makes no sense to me that people would dismiss this third-option as useless, if it is in line with their principles.

Basically, go to vote if you want to, and don’t if you don’t want to, but choose according to your own ideals and principles, because you’re unlikely to influence the outcome either way. I would personnally vote if I was American, and roughly half of the people I know would disagree with my choice and probably think I’m stupid no matter what it is.

  • I’m not sure how much more there is to say about this than was already discussed in the Hypothetica discussion about the lesser of two evils you refer to. As I said there, I personally feel that we should strongly encourage as many people as possible to vote, every time, as low voter turnout (which as we know has been generally decreasing over the last 50 years or so in most Western democracies) is a serious problem for legitimacy. If more and more people switch off politics, shrugging and saying “my vote makes no difference”, or “all the parties are the same”, or “it’s all rigged”, or “they’re all in it for the money”, or “I despise all individual candidates equally”, then that increases democracy’s vulnerability to extreme swings of opinion in the smaller segments who do bother to vote.

    I think I’m making a rough analogy with the Tragedy of the Commons, an individual vs society level argument: sure, individually, each voter may feel their vote is useless, or marginally useful at best, and in many constituencies/states/systems that may well be true. But at the statistical whole-population level, that’s not an argument for reducing the overall turnout, because it’s better to have an accurate large scale assessment of “voter likes and dislikes” than a smaller scale one. So, sorry to sound old fashioned, but I really believe “Your democracy needs you” (to vote), complete with Kitchener-style pointing finger.