In my earlier post about whether to vote for third parties, there were some commenters who asserted that there’s no good reason to vote at all. Since we’re now right on the verge of Election Day, I thought it was worthwhile to address this argument.
Putting aside the inevitable paranoid conspiracy theories, the most common argument I’ve seen for the no-vote position is that the time and effort required to cast one’s vote can be significant, whereas the probability of a single vote playing the deciding role in an election, even in a swing state, is infinitesimal. Therefore, by an expected-value analysis, one should choose not to vote and should spend the time on, say, doing community service, or something else more likely to yield a concrete benefit.
I don’t dispute the mathematics of this, but I do question the premise that the only good reason to vote is the chance of single-handedly deciding the outcome. I can think of some reasons to vote that have nothing to do with the odds of a single ballot swinging an electio.
First: voting reinforces the overall legitimacy of the system. This is something that we should all want, because – regardless of your disagreements with any particular party or administration – democracy is still the best system of government that human beings have invented. Democratic societies are far better than the alternatives at promoting human rights and economic growth, and the spread of democracy has made the modern world more stable, peaceful and prosperous than any previous era in human history.
If we value all these accomplishments, we should want to preserve the system that produced them and see that it stays healthy and vigorous. It isn’t inevitable that democracy, having come into existence, will endure forever: it’s an accomplishment that must be constantly renewed, else it can be lost. And what sustains it is the active participation of the people, just as the circulation of the blood sustains human life. If elections are consistently low-turnout, if people don’t show up at the polls, it suggests that they don’t value representative government and weakens and delegitimizes the whole system. And if candidates are consistently elected by an absolute minority of the populace, then one could argue that we don’t really have a democracy, but an oligarchy. Whatever your disagreements with the government as it’s currently constituted, it’s hard to imagine a scheme in which fewer people voting will fix them.
Second: voting gives a stronger mandate to the victor. If a candidate ekes out a narrow win – or, as is possible in America, wins the electoral college while losing the popular vote – it gives the loser more justification to claim that the winner didn’t receive a mandate from the people to carry out their plans. This increases the chances of political paralysis, gridlock, and ineffective, incompetent government. If you agree with a candidate’s policies, you should want them not just to win, but to win by the largest margin possible, so that they have clear legitimacy and a popular mandate to govern. And even if you dislike all the candidates, the rational thing to do is to vote for the one you dislike the least. This exerts a selective pressure on society to move in your favored direction, whereas refusing to vote sends all the candidates the message that your views can be disregarded.
Third: voting wards off corruption and extremism by proving that the citizenry is engaged and paying attention. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the logical corollary is that corruption flourishes in the dark. When politicians know that voters aren’t paying attention, they’ll feel less compunction about taking bribes, showing favoritism, or just not doing their jobs. And the clearest sign that voters aren’t paying attention is that they don’t show up on Election Day. By contrast, high-turnout elections are a sign that the electorate is motivated and watchful, which gives elected officials reason to believe that they’ll be found out and punished if they abuse their office.
The other danger of low turnout is that it allows extreme factions to capture the government. Religious and ideological cults are often marked by obedience and conformity of thought, which means that their members are more likely to show up at the polls and to vote as their leaders command. If moderate voters aren’t present to dilute them, they can exert a disproportionate influence on the composition of the government, and they can steer politicians into decisions that are good for them but bad for society as a whole. This is a consideration that atheists in particular should be sensitive to, since we’re so often pitted against religious groups that vote in virtual lockstep. If we abstain, we’re not accomplishing anything except giving their votes greater potency and importance.
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