My Vote is No Vote at All
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 03:09
The election in less than two months is going to be fairly important. Yet, strangely enough, whether or not I vote will be extremely unimportant.
Let’s get something clear first: This argument is about my individual decision not to vote. It is not an argument against having a democracy, voting rights or voter registration efforts. I have (probably controversial) views on these issues, but they are not the subject of this piece. I’m not even advocating that you should also follow my lead, although of course you are free to do so.
The reason I will probably not vote in this year’s election is an obvious one: My decision to cast a ballot will almost certainly have no effect on the outcome. Mathematically speaking, the chances are infinitesimally small that I will be the deciding vote. If you do think it will matter, I’ve got lottery tickets I’d like to sell you.
Even if I stand a chance of making a difference, I might be wrong about my political beliefs — perhaps I will vote poorly, and no one benefits from that. Even if my beliefs are correct, maybe I don’t know who best represents them. In 2008, I thought Obama would be more open to immigration, until he started deporting immigrants at a faster rate than George W. Bush.
The individual decision to vote has two significant costs. The first is that politics is really bad for you. A democracy may be better than ancient tribal decision-making, but our brains are still wired to think in that context. And back then, politics was really important and dangerous. Being on the wrong team could mean death or exile. When we think about politics, we don’t think rationally because it has become a team sport and everyone has an “us versus them” mentality.
As a result, when we think about politics, we care more about whether our team is winning than we care about whether our team is right or wrong. This is why Republicans don’t like to be reminded that George W. Bush was not a fiscal conservative, and Democrats will wring their hands when reminded that Obama defends his right to kill citizens without oversight. It’s much easier to ignore arguments that force us to reconsider the validity of our devotion to a particular political party. In fact, both sides will simply point across the aisle and say “Well, they’re no better, so what's it going to be?” I don't want to get sucked into that.
Secondly, voting might substitute for other, more effective ways of contributing to society. I’m told it’s my civic duty to vote, and afterward I can get an “I voted!” sticker. So, if I vote, I’m likely to feel closer to having fulfilled my duty. I will probably not explicitly think, “I don't have to give blood; I voted last week,” but any feeling of self sacrifice I get from voting will make it less likely that I donate blood, even though that will likely do more good for the world than voting.
As Georgetown philosopher and professor Jason Brennan argues, voting is just one of many ways of fulfilling civic duty, and in fact, those who vote poorly have a duty to abstain from voting. There are ways of engaging with government without voting; remember that the Supreme Court rejected the government’s commerce clause argument on health care because of legal theory crafted by Georgetown Law’s Randy Barnett, not a democratic vote. At the margin, a nonvoter who invents life-improving devices does more for society than an informed voter.
The most common argument against not voting is: “What if everyone else thought that way?” Of course, if everyone else didn’t vote, the logic is dramatically different. That’s not relevant, though, because it’s not true that everyone else abstains. If it were true that very few people voted, then of course I’d vote, since I’d be able to decide the election. In fact, I do vote in smaller elections in which I am informed, such as GUSA elections. Remember that this is an argument over one individual’s decision to vote, not the populace at large.
In addition to the above reasons, I don't like any of the candidates. For me, not voting actually expresses my view that none of the candidates have earned my vote, and lowering the voter participation rate helps decrease the winner’s legitimacy. Asking me to vote is asking me to take the time to fill out a form so I can voice support for someone I don't actually support. As long as I have sufficient justification, exercising my right not to vote is as valid as actually voting.
Preston Mui is a senior in the College.