Campus Coordinator Zak Slayback of the University of Pennsylvania was featured in a HuffPost Live video for The Huffington Post. Check out the discussion here or in the video at the end of this article and enjoy Zak’s thoughts on not voting.
As the 2012 election reaches its campaigning climax, numerous groups on the sides of both major parties tell Americans that this is “the most important election in our history.” Such a bold claim implies that each and every vote has bold importance. Failure to make an informed vote is viewed as failure to make one’s impact on history.
Despite such brazen claims of significance, many are frowned upon when they actively decide to vote for a third party or actively sit out of the election. Attacks of wasted votes and non-engagement with our civic democracy are lobbed at such individuals, urging them to get behind one of the two major parties and make their vote count.
Those who are wasting their votes are actually those voting for one of the two major parties. There is a legitimate case to be made for active non-voting. This case is both practical and theoretical.
Statistically speaking, no one vote matters in a major national election. Even in small swing states under the Electoral College, the probability of one’s vote influencing the outcome of the election are incredibly slim. For rational actors in a marketplace, taking the time to give up one’s evening and go vote is usually irrational. That is, voting is normally not an efficient utilization of given resources, including the ever-fleeting resource of time spent registering to vote, going to the polls, standing around at the polls, actually voting, and then leaving the polls. Economists of the Virginia School have calculated that one is more likely to be killed in a car crash traveling to the polls than make any statistical impact on an election. Though this may not be the feel-good civic republican response that many Americans love, it is the truth of rational actors in the marketplace. Public Choice economist Gordon Tullock notes that a great many of Americans “are under delusions as to the importance of their vote. They think their vote makes a lot of difference, but as a matter of fact, it doesn’t.”
Moreover, the time and resources that must be expended to make a well-informed vote are so great that any possibility of rational voting is ridiculous. The hours spent watching the news, researching economic trends, listening to candidates, and staying on top of the political game can be better spent elsewhere. In fact, one would have a better chance of making an impact on the world and better utilize given resources by researching and purchasing several multi-state lottery tickets than actually influencing a national election. At least with the lottery system, “winning” actually guarantees control over the game; meanwhile, “winning” in an election only guarantees control by an appointed surrogate.
It is clear the way to make a positive impact on the world is not voting, so why even consider it? There is an abstract case to be made here as well.
In theory, a system which utilizes democratic means does so in order to show some sort of consent between the government and the governed. As explained above, voting within the two-party system is practically pointless. So why vote? A better question is why not vote?
As more Americans become disenfranchised with their government and the options presented to them, active refusal to vote can send a strong message. Not to be confused with apathy, active non-voting is the conscious decision to forgo participating for a greater reason. Just as votes in an autocratic system may serve as signaling mechanisms to show approval or disapproval with the current regime, non-voting may act as a signaling mechanism to show such approval or disapproval with the entire electoral system. One’s vote may not matter as a matter of practicality, but the signal that voting sends can matter.
The choice presented in national elections may appear to be between left and right, but the choice really lies between the current system and something else. While choosing not to vote may not make a statistical impact on the election, mass non-voting would make clear the public’s disapproval with the current political regime. If a majority of possible voters in a given national election choose not to vote, then that system does not have the approval of its governed. Voting only shows an approval of an increasingly distressful system, non-voting is the active action of taking away one’s own approval.
The reasons for actually going out and voting seem to be fewer and fewer each day. The wrong question to ask is “who should I vote for?” The real question is “why vote?”