- It will almost certainly make no difference to the outcome whether I vote or not.
- If everyone thought the above, it would no longer be true.
Both these statements are accurate. The first one often wins out because it suggests a direct course of action: as long as I don't influence a great number of people to do the same, I, personally, don't need to vote.
So is it really worth voting at all?
A. I don't vote because I don't follow politics
B. I don't vote because all politicians are crooks
C. I don't vote because I don't trust any of the candidates
D. I don't vote because I can't be bothered.
E. I don't vote because I can't spare the time on election day.
I'm convinced that answers A, C and D are totally acceptable, whereas B and E are not. It might be possible to convince someone who answers A or D to vote, but don't get your hopes up. Overcoming distraction or laziness isn't easy. As for C, the person has presumably evaluated his options and decided that staying home is the best course.
Someone who answers B is using cynicism as an excuse to be lazy. That person could use a little pep talk about the importance of democratic participation. If someone answers E, it would be good to point out to them why voting is important and direct them to resources (absentee ballots, early voting) that make their life easier.
But we have not yet answered the underlying question: should everyone actually vote? I'm convinced the answer is NO. Platitudes like "if you don't vote, you have no right to complain" and "people died so you could have the right to vote" will not win many converts and to not address any of the non-voter's arguments. Here's why it may not always be a good idea to vote:
Flying back from Columbus to Toronto on Nov. 3, 2004, I was seated next to a Sheriff's deputy from California. He was in his mid 50's and had a bad back. We naturally started talking politics because Kerry had just conceded (I was doing my best to conceal my rage and despair). He told me he'd voted for Schwartzenegger during the recall, but that he regretted it now. The new California state budget limited the number of chiropractic visits he could get without a doctor's referral, and he was being hit hard by out-of-pocket expenses. It was soon clear that although the guy had been a lifelong Republican, he knew nothing about politics other than "Kerry lied about his war wounds".
This guy should never have voted. He would have done less harm to himself had he simply stayed home and used excuse A or C. A vote cast in ignorance is worse than no vote at all, because it dilutes the effect of every other vote.
So how should the common citizen approach the voter's paradox? Well, for starters, it is much more productive to get civically involved on the local level, as we see below. The following chart assumes a perfectly even two-candidate race where the winner takes all. Every voter has a 50% chance of voting for either candidate. The Y axis scale shows the probability that a given vote will be the deciding one (i.e. the other votes break exactly even).
As we can see, one vote is obviously much more influential in small voting populations. When the voting population gets above 10,000 (e.g. a house primary) the probability of one vote changing the outcome becomes negligible.
So, what to conclude from all this? I'm convinced that the way to improve one's influence on the voting process is to combine votes with fellow citizens and form a voting bloc. If you can get 9 fellow citizens to agree on a position and vote as a group, the graph slides leftward by one decade and your influence increases tenfold. Ten people could conceivably swing a 10,000 vote race, where 1 person could not.
This is already done among our representatives. Caucuses within the US congress vote together all the time when they want to exert more influence or when not every member is well-versed on the intricacies of a bill.
So get out there and convince! Caucus! Organize! Assign specialists to specific issues! Scattershot individual voting is ineffective. Pooling our voices and voting as a whole makes more and more sense as the size of the population increases.