Home / General / Purity of Essence

Purity of Essence


This post is going to sound like under-theorized musing not as some sort of rhetorical device, but because I’m sincerely puzzled by the following question (triggered, obviously, by the last several posts and the comments to them):

Why does what any individual chooses to do with his or her vote in a presidential election ever matter in any way?

It’s obvious that at the most straightforward level of analysis my presidential vote doesn’t “matter,” if “matter” means “have an effect on the outcome.” Statements like “voting for Gary Johnson makes it more likely Romney will be elected” are true at the level of individual action in the same way that the statement “if I (Paul Campos) call up the Denver Nuggets today and ask them for a tryout that will increase the chances that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster.” Probabilistically, this statement is true. Practically, it’s meaningless, since the odds that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster no matter what I do or don’t do can quite safely be treated as identical to zero with no loss of practical predictive value.

I’ve sometimes wondered if this truth in the context of national elections creates some sort of collective action problem or paradox, at least in terms of any vaguely utilitarian framework of analysis, since the utility of casting a vote to any individual voter is surely negative, unless one starts tacking on caveats about psychic benefits, the potential secondary effects of otherwise completely impotent social gestures and the like.

Following such a line it’s possible I suppose to make arguments about how one’s individual vote, and in particular one’s public posture regarding that vote, could have various ripple effects that went far beyond its immediate practical effect on electoral outcomes, which again is always and everywhere pragmatically identical with “none whatever.”

Indeed without such an argument, it’s hard to see how any individual vote in a presidential election is ever anything more than the kind of “pure” (which is to say in practical terms completely ineffective) act of self-expression which those who self-consciously engage in casting protest votes are often derided for engaging in.

Continuing . . . I personally don’t believe in utilitarianism as either a descriptive or normative matter, so I don’t think a utilitarian justification for individual voting behavior is necessary. But I doubt one can be successfully maintained.

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  • Scott Lemieux

    Well, sure — as I said, if we’re talking about how any one individual should vote, their vote is meaningless (even if it’s in a battleground state.) I assume that arguments about how people should vote represent arguments about what would make the most collective sense. If it’s just individual votes, I agree, do whatever you want.

    But note as well that if we’re going to live our lives by the Downs Paradox, it doesn’t just apply to voting — it’s completely irrational to care about politics at all. I prefer not to think like an economist.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      Well, a few years back, my vote was one of ~10 that decided a state assembly election.

      Which flipped the controlling party of the state assembly.

      About as close as being “the deciding vote” as I’m likely to get.

  • Did the 2000 election not happen? How can anyone pretend that protest votes can’t have consequences at this point?

    • “Protest votes,” yes, “my individual protest vote,” no.

      • James E. Powell

        But without a lot of “individual protest votes” there wouldn’t be any “protest votes” to cause the bad consequences.

        The Bush/Cheney Junta in 2000 would not have been possible without boatloads of “individual protest votes” in Florida and New Hampshire.

        Did any one vote cause that? Of course not. But each individual vote, and the whole “no difference” narrative that led up to it, had consequences. Bad ones, as I recall.

        • spencer

          Yes. The marginal effect of any particular protest vote is nearly indistinguishable from zero. But that doesn’t mean the collective impact of all these meaningless protest votes is also nearly indistinguishable from zero.

          • This seems especially true when your intention to cast an individually meaningless protest vote is shouted from the rooftops of The Atlantic.

            It seems clear this is an attempt to encourage a collective protest vote.

            • agorabum

              This. A protest vote is one thing, advocating for protest votes (and Conor’s essay is nothing but advocacy to make a protest vote to protest against the current drone-strike policies) is another. it’s an attempt to persuade the Atlantic-reading public that Obama is not worthy of a vote and is not worthy of re-election. And it’s divorced from any analysis of what happens if Obama loses (i.e., potential bombing / war with Iran)

              • Scott Lemieux

                Agreed with both of the above posts. If you write a blog post about how you’re not voting for Obama, this preempts the “but how does any individual vote matter anyway?” defense. If it doesn’t matter, don’t write about it. Or, indeed, since no one person in that position can change political outcomes find something else to do for a living.

  • Because coalition voting is ultimately a collective, not individual, action so, as a result, individuals who rationalize that no one will miss their one vote if they use it in such a way as to stroke their own sense of moral superiority are, in effect, cheating the system, since it’s self-evidently true that it wouldn’t be possible for everyone to do that.

    • Scott de B.

      Precisely. The point of democracy is that all of our votes count the same (and therefore, individually, very little). The rationalizations that one’s vote only counts if it determines the result is tantamount to saying that political participation is pointless unless I specifically am determining the outcome — in other words, dictatorship. Which in the context of democracy is absurd.

      Moreover, by not voting I am effectively ceding my (admittedly small) amount of political power to somebody else, and knowing the kind of people that are out there, I’m not particularly sanguine about that.

    • But the third-party voter can (often) answer in good faith “if everyone did that, then the candidate I’m voting for would win, not be a protest vote.”

      I don’t see any way around this paradox of don’t-waste-your-vote-ism. The Nader voter in 2000 or the Johnson voter now doesn’t decide the election individually, and so the only way to insist that voting for a non-viable candidate is to say “but what if everyone did that?”– and if everyone did that, the candidate would become viable.

      • Vance Maverick

        Why jump straight to “everyone”? “But what if a nontrivial number of people did that?” is a valid, arguably more relevant question.

        • Malaclypse

          In the impossible event that a non-trivial number of voters (say, 25%) in the completely safe state of Massachusetts decide to vote for Jill Stein, then Romney will get the state’s electoral votes.

          • And the only-slightly-more-impossible event that 34% did so (give or take), *Jill Stein* would get the state’s electoral votes. If 34% of the whole country did so, Jill Stein might well become president.

            Why does the generalization to 25% uniquely tell me what my ethical responsibility as a voter is, rather than either the generalization to 34% or the non-generalization to the consequences of my individual vote?

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          The problem with that argument, Vance, is that a non-trivial number of people do not actually prefer Jill Stein to Barack Obama. And if they did, Jill Stein would be an actually viable presidential candidate…and we’d be having a very different discussion.

      • nonunique

        This is (at least loosely) mutually exclusive with the “voting my conscience is okay because my individual vote doesn’t matter” justification.

  • Mike

    In the UK, you can say that you’re sending a message by choosing not to vote for Labour, because there is a better party to vote for, and you’re just voting for your local representative anyway.

    In the US, there is supposedly a better party to vote for, but it’s not a real party. As a Dem voter who chooses not to vote Dem but would never vote Rep, you’re just lumped in with “failed turnout strategy”. There’s no way to send a message.

    • Murc

      In the UK, you can say that you’re sending a message by choosing not to vote for Labour, because there is a better party to vote for, and you’re just voting for your local representative anyway.

      … UK uses first-past-the-post. If you don’t vote Labour because there’s a better choice (in the past that’s been LidDem for most people) doesn’t that result in a 30-30-40 split that means the Tory is elected?

      ‘Course, the same thing happens TO the Tories, but…

      • John

        It would depend on the constituency.

    • John

      Nobody in the UK thinks of themselves as voting for their local MP.

      • NBarnes

        And rightly so. If the US had a strong parliamentary system, we’d have a very different politics indeed.

        • NBarnes

          And Obama would be a (very) moderate Tory, as is clearly his temperament.

        • Holden Pattern

          We have one strong parliamentary party. Does that count?

  • This is a point I made in the last post as well, but voting does matter. It may not matter a lot, but aggregate vote totals affect ongoing political strategy (i.e. selection of battleground states; willingness of national parties and PACs to invest in local candidates) and may play a role in setting national policy (i.e. the current majority vote electoral college reform effort).

    It is an historic record of an opinion, and affects the way in which we understand ourselves as a society.

    I don’t think these are merely ‘psychic’ benefits, but we seem to have otherwise divorced the concept of citizenship from any sense of obligation. I think we need to bring it back: membership has its privileges, and it should also have responsibilities beyond merely obeying the law.

  • In the vast majority of cases, the person one is arguing with is not just planning to withhold or reallocate their own vote, but is attempting to persuade large numbers of other people to do the same.

  • Evan Harper

    Voting is rational. The denominator (chance of an individual vote swinging an election) is tiny but the denominator (benefit to hundreds of millions of people of living under a more effective and beneficent state) is huge.

    Gelman: “Suppose there are 100 million voters choosing between two candidates, each of whom is expected to receive between 45% and 55% of the vote. The probability that your vote will swing the outcome of the election is then 1 in 10 million. … if your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for tens of millions of people. If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $100 improvement in the quality of life to the average person in your country—not an implausible hope, given the size of national budgets and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the environment, and other areas—you’re now buying a billion-dollar lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds.”

    • tt

      People should read this post and the link it contains. An individual vote is not “meaningless.” A 1 in 5 million chance of swinging the election is quite significant given the low cost of voting and the massive difference between the candidates. Considering just the Iraq war, for example, and just its financial costs (ignoring human costs) at $3 trillion dollars, voting with a 1 in 50 million (accurate within a few orders of magnitude for a Colorado voter) chance of deciding the election is rational if it costs $60,000. As a vote by mail voter, my vote costs me approximately $2 in time. That looks like a pretty good deal to me.

    • Manta

      Is it my impression, or in the article they multiply the benefit by the number of beneficiaries, but refrained to multiply the costs by the number of people incurring them?

      I.e.: if the correct number to consider as the benefit is the *total* benefit of your favorite candidate winning (i.e., the benefit for the whole people), why isn’t the correct number to consider as the cost the *total* cost of having elections?

      • tt

        Those costs are incurred whether you decide to vote or not, so are not relevant to the question of whether you should vote.

    • mpowell

      This is exactly right. Regardless of the size of the population, your vote has the same value, if you consider the interests of the population as a whole. If you only care about yourself, however, voting is generally pointless.

      I’m not 100% sure how to apply this analysis to the original question, however. But if you take a utilitarian approach, it seems entirely clear that voting pragmatically is the right thing to do. It’s also hard to see why utilitarianism is the wrong approach for voting. There are no relevant Kantian type dilemmas here that I can imagine.

      • Lyanna

        Yeah, this. I’m not much of a utilitarian normally, but it seems like it’s the only moral outlook that has anything to say bout voting.

    • njorl

      I believe Paul is assuming the specific results of the contest in question are not in doubt. In that situation, your vote has zero chance to change the outcome.

      • L2P

        I’m curious. How can any US election not be in doubt?

        The voter turnout never exceeds 60%. If any notable (i.e., small but noticeable) number of nonvoters and/or third party voters voted for the losing candidates, the losing candidate would certainly win. Even in a “safe” state. If every registered voter in California who isn’t going to vote said, “Screw it. I’m voting for Romney. Fuck Obama and his fucking drones in Pakistan,” Obama would lose California by a landslide.

        An election can be statistically unlikely to be won by the underdog, but how can any election be free of doubt?

        • njorl

          Vanishingly small probabilities are not worth consideration. Obama isn’t winning Oklahoma; Romney isn’t winning Maryland. The people who live in those states operate under the justifiable belief that those are unalterable truths. Answering the question as to why they should vote is useful.

          If you tell someone from Oklahoma that their vote might win it for Obama, they will laugh at you and ignore your argument. If you come up with some other reason why they should go out and vote, they might agree with you.

  • Scott de B.

    The point I tried to make in the other thread is that not voting is a form of free riding akin to exploiting a common (fishing in the ocean, littering a roadway, stealing a candy bar). You can rationalize that one person won’t have a major negative effect, but our decisions are not truly independent, and if one person tries to free-ride then is stands to reason many will, and if many will the system breaks down.

    • Also true.

      • Paul Campos

        The free rider point is interesting (I don’t think Scott D. B’s examples involve free riding however).

    • Jack

      I clicked on comments to make this same point. Those who argue that one vote is meaningless are like people who don’t vaccinate and rely on the herd to keep them safe. Voting is an obligation that we have to our fellow citizens and I don’t think much of people who choose to skip out on that obligation.

      • R. Porrofatto

        Exactly. The individual action of voting is part of a collective expression of choice, and while the individual vote may not appear to make a difference the choice itself can have enormous consequences for everyone, including the non-voter. To rationalize not voting because one’s individual vote doesn’t bear the entire weight of the result is to reject almost any collective expression as meaningless. There would be no point in participating in boycotts, demonstrations, petitions, or even making contributions to charity.

    • david mizner

      This doesn’t make any sense:

      if one person tries to free-ride then is stands to reason many will, and if many will the system breaks down.

      Voting, or not voting, doesn’t affect what others will do, and many people do free ride now, and the system hasn’t broken down.

      It’s indisputably true that one person’s vote doesn’t make a difference, but contrary to the rational choice theorists (who are closely related to the Randians), voting presents no paradox, because we’re not motivated merely be immediate self-interest. We, or some of us, want to do our part.

      When we say, What if everybody did that?, it’s not because we believe people will follow our lead, it’s because we don’t want to leave it to others to do our work for us, whether we’re voting or recycling or whatever.

      • L2P

        1. That is exactly what free riders do. Their actions do not affect directly whether other people also are free riders, but through their cumulative affect on the system. If people are supposed to pay for a subway ride, but because of a lack of effective enforcement lots of people don’t, you have a free rider problem. The individual free riders aren’t riding for free BECAUSE of the others; they’re just individually causing problems.

        2. Why do you think we don’t have a free rider problem now? Tons of people don’t vote because “it doesn’t matter.” There are over a million families in the LAUSD system; less than 40,000 voters took part in the last LAUSD elections, largely because “it doesn’t matter.” Do you think ANYBODY’s democratic interests are represented when 40,000 people determine the future of a $20 Billion government program?

      • Dave

        Yes, the system has broken down. It’s just been down so long it looks like up to you.

  • Michael

    As the margin in an election changes–even after the median vote has established the literal outcome–it changes the calculus that goes in to an elected person’s decisionmaking, and that of those around him. [this effect is strongest if he himself is running for re-election, but exists even without that pressure]

    Most Salient Example:
    Do you think Jim Jeffords’ defection was unrelated to Gore’s popular vote margin?

    Let us say that Jim Jeffords’ probability of defection rises as Al Gore’s margin over George Bush does. Let us imagine that the probability is 0% if Bush overtops Gore by a full 1%, and 100% if Gore tops Bush by 1%, according to some function f(x). I, as a math geek, with some quick integration and statistics, can tell every single Gore voter, nationwide, exactly to what extent he or she personally is responsible for Bush losing the Senate for a while there.

    Even though that margin has nothing to do with actually being the median voter, running up the score, and preventing the other side from doing likewise, influences officials’ behavior.

    If you are in a district where you are on the happy side of the median vote (eg a Democrat in a D+60 district where the winner of the primary is someone who you strongly like) running up the score tells the incumbent he doesn’t need to watch his own back nearly so much, and can spend more time legislating, building influence, and fundraising for true-blues in *other* districts.

    To be even more extreme, if Gore had won an outright popular majority, even without taking any further electoral votes the normative pressure on O’Connor to do the right thing would have been *substantially* stronger. Maybe she would have done the right thing, maybe she wouldn’t, but it’s not nothing. Likewise, if we lived in a world where Gore won a popular majority at Nader’s expense, and three electors from, say, Colorado turned faithless after Bush v. Gore, a Paul Campos from this Earth-2 might have something fruitful to add to this discussion.*

    *And with a President Gore in charge of NASA instead of a science-phobe, we may even have interdimensional portals by now!

    • Steve LaBonne

      If you are in a district where you are on the happy side of the median vote (eg a Democrat in a D+60 district where the winner of the primary is someone who you strongly like) running up the score tells the incumbent he doesn’t need to watch his own back nearly so much, and can spend more time legislating, building influence, and fundraising for true-blues in *other* districts.

      Exactly. I’m always amazed at the utter political cluelessness of people who think making sure a decent Dem wins only by a narrow margin is “sending them a message” that will somehow make them move leftward. In our current political environment this is a childish delusion.

      Getting out in the streets to pressure the people in power can help make things better. Working to elect more liberal county committee members can help make things better. Moral preening about what you’re going to do on Nov. 6? Not so much.

  • rinda

    If none of it matters, why fight for the right to vote at all? Why fight all the voter ID laws? Who cares? Your votes don’t matter. I’m so sick of this YOUR VOTE DON’T FUCKING MATTER argument.

    • Malaclypse

      This. How many people died fighting for our right to vote? I’m not subjecting that sacrifice to the utilitarian calculus of “vote or watch TV.” Fuck that.

      • Glenn

        There’s never anything good on, anyway.

        • Malaclypse

          Speak for yourself. I still have not seen last Saturday’s Doctor Who.

          • rea

            Is that the one where he goes back in time trying to get people in Florida in the year 2000 to vote for Gore?

            • Malaclypse


    • NBarnes

      This is one of the arguments I make. If voting doesn’t matter, why do so many of the bad actors (indeed, some of the worst actors the US has) spend so very much time and money trying to keep people from voting or influence their votes with lies and slander? Those bad actors seem very convinced that your votes matter and that it’s important that you not vote.

      I would be very wary of placing myself in a position that argues that, on a certain basic level, the Voting Rights Act of 1967 wasn’t that important because the individual vote of any single black person in Dixie wouldn’t make a difference. Everybody at the time seemed to think it was a big deal.

    • Manta

      Because the purpose of, say, vote ID law is NOT to lower the number of people voting: it is to SKEW the result: that is, a law that would prohibit a random 5% of people from voting would not advantage any of the 2 parties, and therefore nobody is interested in enacting it.
      “Bad actors” are not trying to keep people from voting: they are trying to keep a very specific subset of people from voting.

      If you prefer: the RIGHT to vote is way more important than the actual action of voting, since one of the aim of the whole election thing is to instil the fear of God in the representatives: if you, and the people in your group, cannot vote, they will ignore your interests (or, better, the interests of your group); if you can vote, they will take them into some account, even if you, for some private reason, decide not to vote.

      In other words: a system that disenfranchised 5% of the population based, say, on their race, would be much worse than a system that at every election threw away half of the votes chosen randomly. In the second system, your opinion would still count, even if you actual vote were thrown away; in the first one, if you are of teh wrong race, you are fucked.

  • I realized something that’s missing from this discussion when I read Rich Puchalsky’s comments: Half (roughly) of the voting-eligible population already doesn’t vote, largely out of ignorance and apathy (though there are also some structural issues, like the fact that we vote on workdays, unlike the rest of the civilized world) as near as anyone can tell.

    Does this change the moral arguments around the voting or non-voting of informed citizens? Should it?

    • mpowell

      Not in my opinion. Ignorant people not voting is not a bad thing.

      • But they could. And being uninformed, there’s no guarantee they’ll vote in a normally distributed fashion. In fact, what I’ve seen on research on low-information and unlikely voters is that most are motivated, when they do vote, by outrage.

      • rea

        It’s two bad things.

  • Always Lurking

    It’s very much like the problem of taxation. Those who think of it individually or narcissistically say “if you want to give more to the government, do so.” But of course it only has effect if all are taxed a little bit, which adds up to a lot. Same, I suppose, with voting. Individually, of course it means nothing. Collectively, it means everything.

  • synykyl

    One straw may not weigh much, but it does weigh something. Just think of the proverbial camel, or the 2000 Presidential election.

  • Anonymous

    There is a utilitarian justification for voting, beyond the possibility that your vote decides the race.

    The ballot results don’t just decide who wins the election. They also show the political atmosphere of the district in which votes are cast. The turnout and distribution of votes make a real statement about the viability of potential electoral strategies. For this purpose, each incremental vote has an incremental effect.

    What that means isn’t necessarily clear. If Obama wins by a larger margin, does that mean a Democratic candidate has a greater chance of winning, and can therefore afford to do less tacking to the center? Or does it mean that current policies are generating good vote results and therefore should be continued?

    I think it will be the former. Candidates play to their base in the primary as much as they can without screwing up their chances in the general election. They backtrack a little in the general, but not completely. By making it clear that large numbers of Democrats will vote in the general election, you make it more likely that a candidate will move left to win the primary. In this regard, each vote helps incrementally.

    This utilitarian justification would also work for symbolic third-party candidate votes, provided there was no ambiguity about what such a vote meant. Voting for a Green candidate could be construed as potential support for a liberal Democrat, but a vote for a Communist party candidate might be construed as a vote which is unobtainable for any mainstream candidate.

    • njorl

      above was me

  • Aaron B.

    One answer would be to say you’re misinterpreting utilitarianism, and that a proper utilitarian would recognize that the benefits of high voter turnout for a society as a whole is well worth the cost of millions of people getting registered and taking time out of their day. Once you recognize that that is a desirable outcome, how do you achieve it? One method might be to persuade broad swathes of society that voting is necessary, a civic duty, and “every vote counts,” etc, because if each individual person believed their vote didn’t count, far fewer people would vote and the desired collective good wouldn’t be attained. Some have called this a “regulative fiction,” meaning, something we believe, not because it’s true, but because it’s necessary for us to act as if it were true. But there’s no real conflict between this and utilitarianism: the outcome we desire is “high voter turnout,” and the truth of the civic-republican beliefs we use to achieve it aren’t relevant to the desired goal. Util generally 1. Takes the beliefs and attitudes of persons to be a part of the set of facts that deserve to be evaluated for their consequences and therefore 2. Is agnostic about the actual truth value of those beliefs (for the most part, having true beliefs will prevent bad consequences, but perhaps not always!)

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Here’s the way I view these things.

    In an ideal world (or even a constituency which features a system of single transferable voting), everyone should vote for the candidate that s/he most prefers. One could even make this a categorical imperative if one wanted to not be a utilitarian about it.

    But this is not an ideal world (or even, in the case of US federal and state elections, one with STV). Our first-past-the-post electoral system frequently creates real disincentives for some voters to vote for the candidate they actually prefer. This isn’t about the marginal vote (I agree with Paul on this), it’s about the collective effect of voting for one’s actual preference. In many races, if every voter voted for the candidate s/he actually preferred, the winner –by plurality but not majority–would be a candidate that a majority actually most disfavors. As a result, in first-past-the-post systems, tactical voting is often necessary.

    Usually, those who ought to be voting tactically are voters who would most prefer a minor-party candidate. But, sometimes, major-party voters vote (and ought to vote) tactically, as Republicans did for Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Connecticut Senate race and as many Democrats will do when they vote for Angus King in the Maine Senate race this year (some Democratic King voters will actually prefer King, but others will be voters who would prefer the Democrat, Cynthia Dill, but understand that she cannot win).

    As you can see, I have no problem with acknowledging the need for tactical voting…where there is such a need. But let’s be clear: the argument that those progressives who happen to be morally appalled by Obama’s civil liberties record, and thus prefer other candidates, ought to nevertheless vote for Obama, is an argument for tactical voting. I utterly accept that argument….where that tactic makes sense.

    But just as elections (except in a few systems of local government) in the U.S. tend to feature first-past-the-post systems, our presidential elections are determined by an electoral college system that, in every state but Maine and Nebraska, grants a state’s electoral votes to whichever candidate captures a plurality of its popular vote. And in very red and very blue states–i.e. states in which an overwhelming majority of the electorate actually prefers one out of the major party candidates–it makes no sense to suspend the general principle that one ought to vote for the candidate one most prefers.

    And that’s my argument: in situations when there is no point in their putting their actual preferences aside and tactically voting for another candidate, voters should vote their actual preferences, whatever those are. And in presidential elections, non-battleground states are such situations.

    • Steve LaBonne

      And in presidential elections, non-battleground states are such situations.

      That’s mostly but not completely true. The exception is when non-swing-state expressive voting is helping to build a third party that could in the future become an effective swing-state spoiler of the Nader-in-2000 type.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Nader-in-2000 is an unlikely event, brought about by an extraordinarily close race and a high-name recognition third-party candidate (the Green Party had almost nothing to do with Nader’s success, such as it was…which really wasn’t much).

        The scenario you suggest is almost a total fantasy. Any success of a third party significant enough to result in materially altering a future election cycle would involve that party becoming significant enough to actually compete for victory in that future election cycle. That level of success seems monumentally unlikely. But if it were to happen, that would make the vote for the third party in the earlier election cycle more than simply expressive (in a good way for those prone to support that party).

        Moreover, if you’re talking about a solidly red state, wouldn’t building a party that could “spoil” future elections be a feature, not a bug?

        • Steve LaBonne

          Bug. It would only entrench the right even more immovably.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            By definition, an actually competitive third party (which is not going to happen) would be able to win seats. Its appearance over a number of electoral cycles would also almost certainly result in voting-system reform that would moot the whole “spoiling” issue. But again, this is not going to happen.

            And it didn’t happen in 2000. Nader in 2000 did pretty terribly, garnering under 3% of the vote. Whatever impact he had on the result was due to the extreme closeness of the race in a handful of states. And my rule about battleground states would continue to apply to any such situation: would-be third-party voters in such states should vote tactically for the least bad major party candidate.

  • Theophylact

    Is this not just the old sorites paradox? If my vote is worthless, then I shouldn’t cast it, nor should you, nor the next person, until you get down to that last guy, who has the only vote that counts.

    • But it’s a weird special case: those convinced that we shouldn’t focus on the individual vote (which doesn’t matter) are focusing all their attention on a particular intermediate case (where some small but consequential group of people vote the same way as the particular voter) rather than on the fully generalized case (if a plurality, a majority, or everyone voted in the same way as the individual voter).

  • James E. Powell

    Elections are about who will rule. A voter can do what he or she can to influence who rules, or can do nothing. Why do nothing?

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Agreed. But the devil is in the details.

      How is a voter in, say, Kansas (which unlike my state of Oklahoma will feature multiple candidates on the ballot beyond the major parties), more influencing who rules by voting for Obama than by voting for, e.g., Jill Stein. Neither vote will have any impact whatsoever on who rules.

      And, more importantly for this argument, lets compare two cases: 1) every single Kansan who prefers Jill Stein to Obama, but also prefers Obama to Romney, votes for Stein; 2) every single Kansas who prefers Jill Stein to Obama, but also prefers Obama to Romney votes for Obama. Neither scenario would make any difference whatsoever in who rules.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        erp…Kansan* (in case #2)

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        …and I forgot to add the conclusion: if the chief principle is “doing nothing is wrong” one cannot distinguish on the basis of that principle between a vote for Obama and a vote for a minor party candidate in any very red (or very blue) state. Both votes are either doing something or doing nothing (depending on your definition of doing nothing).

        • James E. Powell

          There is a point at which discussing hypothetical but never gonna happen situations becomes tiresome. No disrespect, but I think we are there. It’s a like a “never mind that shit, here comes Mongo!” moment.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            Sorry, but this isn’t a hypothetical. In very red states like Kansas, nothing that progressive voters do will alter the outcome of the presidential election. So is voting for Obama in Kansas “doing nothing”? Is voting for Jill Stein “doing nothing”? What’s your argument?

            • Actually, those of us who vote in unfriendly territory are just hoping that the majority believes you and stays home in sufficient numbers that we steal a march on them.

              Seriously (well, more seriously), minority vote totals may not affect this election directly, but they can and do affect future political strategy and, in the case of a popular-electoral mismatch, the discourse going forward.

            • James E. Powell

              Sorry, that was meant as a general comment to this, the third or fourth post responding to Connor Friedersdorf, not a reply to you.

              With respect to your comment re Jill Stein in Kansas, I would argue that it is better, long term, to build the Democratic vote regardless of the candidate or the result than to vote for a third-party candidate.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks

                So you think that elections are not merely about who will rule, but also about (often extremely implicit) party building? Anything else you think elections are about?

                I would also note that voters who don’t like the Democratic Party may not be particularly moved to try to build it, so this is not an argument that will move many potential third-party voters.

                The issue isn’t the behavior of convinced Democrats (which is pretty obvious: vote for Obama), but rather that of people who don’t like Obama and the Democrats, but understand they’re less bad than Romney and the Republicans.

                (Actually, some people in these threads–not you, James–have argued that people should vote for the least bad viable candidate, which I take it would suggest that everyone in states like Kansas, in which Romney is the only viable candidate, should vote for Romney.)

                • James E. Powell

                  Building an opposition party does affect who rules, long term. Rising D totals would have the effect of moderating the Rs, or allowing already moderate Rs more room to move on policy.

                  But, if people want to vote for a person or party who will never win because they really want, I say go ahead. We do have other things to do, no?

  • njorl

    The Purity of Essence album by The Rumour >> the Purity of Essence album by The Hoodoo Gurus.

  • Pingback: Utilitarianism and Voting | StealthBadger.net()

  • There are lots of things that seemingly shouldn’t matter but in fact matter a lot. What happens to the golf club is irrelevant once the ball is struck, for example; but getting the follow through right is essential to playing well. Similarly, by the time an important scientific paper is published, the other researchers in the field already know its conclusions from phone calls and preprints; but the paper isn’t just important as something to leave for the historians. Preparing the paper and getting it published are crucial parts of the whole process. Voting, I submit, has a similar logic. It’s perfectly true that actually marking the ballot is unlikely to matter much in itself, but the process matters a great deal.

  • Warren Terra

    That whole “Denver Nuggets” analogy makes no goddam sense whatsoever, as you yourself immediately go on to acknowledge: your chances of becoming an NBA player are zero whether or not you apply for the job. But there are lots of other analogies that work fine: winning the lottery, for example, or just collective action and Kant’s categorical imperative.

  • djangermous

    What any individual chooses to do is generally pretty meaningless to society outside of a handful of people.

    Taxes, for example, are probably at least as meaningless on an individual level as any given vote.

    IDK. I think the best argument for voting is that Republicans so openly want to keep as many people as possible from doing it, and fuck them.

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  • It’s a mistake to think of voting as simply the act of an isolated individual (which has very little power). Think of it as the way in which coalitions and collectives make themselves heard, and the act of voting being an assertion of membership in the coalition as well as a increment on a tally.

    See Valdis Krebs It’s the Conversations, Stupid and my post Voting as Ritual.

  • Gareth Wilson

    It’s interesting that this argument is strongest for the presidential election, and gets weaker as the size of the electorate shrinks. Down at the school-board level, it probably does make sense to vote. But I believe people behave in exactly the opposite way. Turnout is lower in mid-terms than presidental elections, local government gets lower turnout than federal, and so on.

  • Dave

    Voting in democratic elections should be compulsory, a duty of citizenship [with the option to vote for ‘none of the above’, of course]. The fact that it isn’t, and in the USA is very close to the opposite, being positively discouraged by major political and cultural forces, is what matters.

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