Ed note: this post by former Clusterstock editor John Carney previously ran on November 3, 2008. It remains as true as ever, so we are re-running it.
The odds are that you did not vote today.
If you are anything like us, not voting is a triumph of sense over propaganda. We’ve received a bunch of emails from friends and concerned citizens urging us to vote this way or that, for one politician or his doppelganger. Some have even implored us to vote regardless of which candidate we favour, out of some sense of civic duty.
Yet we didn’t vote. And neither did most of you.
We all know that voting is irrational. The odds of influencing the outcome of an election are vanishingly small. You are better off being a free-rider on the votes of others. What’s more, the odds that a candidate for whom you vote will successfully carry out policies that match your preferences are even worse. For many of the offices to which men and women will be elected today, you do not actually have any preferences at all.
Voting can also be counter-productive, which is what makes those campaigns urging people to vote so destructive. If you are only so slightly informed about an election that you need to be convinced to vote, your preferences are likely to be ill-informed. You’ll vote according to heuristics–ethnicity, party lines, for familiar names–that political operatives can predict and exploit. We’re probably all better off if we leave the voting to the informed and committed.
Then again, informed voting may be over-rated. Knowing a lot about a candidate’s positions and current social problems may not make you very good at choosing between candidates. Campaign promises are not a good guide to political performance–they are forward looking statements, after all. And often ‘informed voters’ are simply committed ideologues. It’s not clear that more informed voting produces qualitatively improved governance.
Voting is probably the least effective way to make your political preferences influence elections. You’d do far more with a bumper sticker, a chat with a neighbour or a bar-side argument over politics. So if you do have strong preferences, by election day it’s already too late. The uninformed mass of voters and the ideologically committed have already made up their minds. You are already irrelevant.
Some democratic fanatics will tell you that if you don’t vote then you give up your right to dissent against subsequent government policies. I’ve never understood this weird part of pseudo-democratic theory. It certainly isn’t part of the constitution of the United States, which preserves the rights of free speech, free press and petitioning the government even for non-voters. If anything, the opposite should be true: by voting you are tacitly agreeing to abide by the outcome of the vote. By not voting, you are doing not such thing.
We don’t think voting is awful. After all, it isn’t as if you are voluntarily participating in the inevitable exploitation of the people by the government in favour of the well connected. You have not choice but to participate. The coercive elements of a government captured by special interests are present all around you, conscripting the fruits of your labour for their ends–propping up fallen banks, engaging in foreign wars, sponsoring the destruction of your culture, and pure self-dealing by politicians. It’s easy to see why you might want to play some small role in protecting your life, your fortune and whatever is left of your honour from this kind of situation.
There are also plenty of non-political reasons to vote. If you are lonely or elderly, voting might be a good chance to meet people. Lots of other people like you will be gathered in one place. You already have something in common–you like to vote. Odds are that this is a signal of all sorts of other beliefs about life that you also share with your fellow voters. Often there is also free coffee at voting places.
Just don’t let anyone make you feel bad about not voting. The insistence that you have given up some sacred right or failed to performed a civic duty is the clearest sign of someone who either doesn’t really understand politics at all or was trying to manipulate you. Feel free to encourage them in this disordered thinking by telling them that you would have voted if only they had reminded you earlier that it was election day. It will drive them a bit crazy to hear that if only they had worked harder at getting out the vote, you might have voted. And witnessing the irrationality and mistakes of others is one of the fine pleasures of election day.
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