As election day nears, America’s get-out-the-vote frenzy is entering high gear, trying to browbeat voters into exercising their franchise with various arguments. Unfortunately, those arguments reflect seriously flawed logic.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice in government.” This is one of many arguments based on the false premise that your vote will affect what passes and who wins. But your vote will not change the outcome. You will prosper or suffer under the same laws and representatives whether you voted for the winner or the loser, or didn’t vote.
“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about government.” This reflects the same false assumption. But even if your vote would determine the result, binary choices between “electable” candidates and yes or no votes on initiatives written by special interests hardly gives you the power to invoke your preferences.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t care about America.” No amount of care justifies voting if that vote doesn’t alter the outcome. Abstaining has been common since the foundation of our country (although unlike today, it then largely reflected the fact that the government had little power to hurt or help you), when new citizens who had risked their lives to create it cared a great deal.
“Many brave Americans have died to defend your right to vote.” Even granting the flawed premises, those who fought to found and preserve our country did so for our liberty and to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United State,” not for our right to vote. Anyone with even passing familiarity with the American Revolution and Constitution Ratification Debates knows that the key was not the right to vote (e.g., the many references to the tyranny of the majority), but a Constitution that severely circumscribed government’s ability to abuse their citizens. This is why the Supreme Court can override majority votes when they conflict with the Constitution. And if people died for voting rights, why has turnout never approached 100%?
“It is your duty to vote.” Voting is a citizen’s right, implying the right to abstain, not a duty. I have a right to become drunk, divorced and destitute, but that does not give me the duty to do any of them. And if one is not highly informed on an issue, as is true of most, casting an uninformed vote is more a dereliction of duty than a fulfillment of it, contributing nothing valuable to electoral results.“You must vote, because the electoral process would collapse if everyone chose not to vote.â€ Beyond the insignificant probability of everyone abstaining, this is just the common “if everyone” fallacy. Unless your voting choice alters many others’ choices about whether and/or how to vote, which is unlikely, this is irrelevant to whether you should vote (though politicians must, to be taken seriously, as witnessed by the harassment given to any candidate who ever failed to vote in previous elections).
Do the many invalid “get-out-the-voteâ€ arguments imply that you shouldn’t vote? No. But it implies that you shouldn’t vote for invalid reasons. For instance, since your one electorally insignificant vote will not change the result, voting to transfer others’ wealth to you is simply a morally offensive but ineffective attempt at theft. Similarly, choosing to vote despite massive ignorance produces no benefit to you or society.
Voting can, however, be a valid form of cheering for candidates and issues you believe advance what James Madison termed “the general and permanent good of the whole,â€ or against those that violate it (that is one reason why voting against ballot initiatives so often makes sense). Your vote may not change the outcome, but it will avoid endorsing efforts to plunder some for others, which, except in politics, we recognize as theft. That is the most your vote can accomplish. So if you vote, that is what your purpose should be.