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Voting for President Is Meaningless but Fun

If you live in Ohio or Florida or Virginia, maybe your vote will count. The rest of us can do all the thought experiments we want and study the issues assiduously until we’re hallucinating from lack of sleep and our vote isn’t going to be any more...

In less than a month, it will finally be time to vote. After a presidential campaign that has gone on for basically the past two years, we’ll all get to go to the voting place, step behind the curtain, pull the lever or punch the card or tap on the screen to indicate our choice, and step away to let our vote be transported to some central location and (hopefully) be counted; later that night we’ll sit by the glow of our TV or computer screens to watch the sharply dressed men and women of cable news stand in “war rooms” cluttered by unnecessary graphics and holograms and announce the victor. Then the 2016 presidential campaign can finally begin. But actually, I’ve skipped a step. Before you go in to vote, you need to tell the internet who you are voting for.


You can do this in several ways. If you’re a “regular person” you can just post a Facebook status like, “Register and vote and vote for Obama! The Republicans are racists!” and enjoy the waves of approval and outrage you get from your friends and family. If you’re famous and voting for Obama, you can contribute to 90 Days, 90 Reasons, Dave Eggers’s sometimes serious, sometimes jokey, sometimes just dumb pro-’Bama blog. You can also announce your vote and your reasons for doing so via Twitter or Instagram as Lena Dunham and Snoop Dogg did, or tweet your vote and a photo of yourself in a one-piece, like that woman who was in Clueless. But you’ve got a real problem if you are a Public Intellectual Who Thinks Seriously About The Serious Issues. If you’re one of those poor folks, it’s not enough to go, “Romney hates gays, go Obama!” or “I’m rich and not gay, go Romney!” You have to really think hard about your vote—and more importantly, you have to let people know you’re thinking about hard your vote.

Buzz Bissinger, the great sportswriter and even greater troll, let us how hard he was thinking about his vote earlier this week, when he announced in the Daily Beast that despite his family’s liberal roots, he was going with Romney. His reasons for liking Mitt included “He wants to be president” and the fact that he personally does not “see Obama spending much time running the country,” to which many reasonable people have said, “Haha, what are you even talking about, dude?” But Buzz's reasons are less meaningful than his reasoning process. He’s not some schmuck babbling about birth certificates: “I have studied the issues assiduously, or as assiduously as I can given their complexities,” he says. Hear that, everyone? These issues are complex, and he’s trying to understand them, because Buzz Bissinger doesn’t cast his vote for president without a lot of deliberation and consideration beforehand, and certainly not before writing 1,400 words about his decision.


Of course, Buzz might have just noticed all the traffic the right-leaning Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf’s “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” blog post was getting and decided to get himself a piece of the action. Conor claims in the piece, which has 189,000 Facebook likes at the moment, that Obama’s drone strikes and involvement in Libya constitute a “deal-breaker” and that because of that, Conor is voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson if he votes at all. This principled and serious and complex stand was of course debated all over the internet. Will Wilkinson wrote a post for the Economist about how voting for Johnson would be a lousy idea even though Obama’s drone war is terrible. And Robert Wright and Conor got into a discussion about thought experiments, utilitarian philosophy, and differing theories of voting. As you’d expect from a couple of dudes at the Atlantic, their debate was very serious and substantive and measured—unlike Buzz, they didn’t need to tell you that they had considered the issues—but it hinged upon the idea that their votes, like Buzz’s, mattered.

Thing is, they don’t. Robert Wright acknowledged as much in his post, saying, “I don't live in a swing state, and, anyway, when was the last time a swing state's electoral votes were decided by a single vote?” and none of the people mentioned in this post live in a swing state either—well, except maybe for the pro-Romney Clueless woman, Stacey Dash; I’m not sure where she lives. The way the system is set up, the presidential election is not a national race, it’s a series of 50 state races (plus Washington, DC, if you care). Thanks to polling, we already know how most of those races will turn out, and so do the campaigns, which is why Obama and Romney are both hanging out in Ohio all the time. If you live in that state, or Florida, or Virginia, or Wisconsin, maybe your vote and your neighbors’ votes will count. The rest of us can do all the thought experiments we want and study the issues assiduously until we’re hallucinating from lack of sleep and our vote isn’t going to be any more meaningful.

I announced who I was voting for a couple weeks ago (like Conor, I’m probably voting for Johnson), and since then some people have asked me, more or less, “Won’t you feel terrible if Romney wins because you didn’t support Obama?” The honest answer is yes, of course I would, but that’s not going to happen. I live in New York and New York will cast it’s electoral votes for Obama—I might as well cast my meaningless vote for the candidate that makes me feel OK about myself. I’m not voting for Johnson because of some complex moral calculus or because I think my vote will help to advance the future libertarian cause, I’ll be voting for him because, selfishly, that way I’ll feel more principled. Plus I’ll be able to continue to criticize Obama guilt-free since I didn’t help put him in office.

Luckily, there are contests where your vote counts a little bit more. State and local elections have a huge effect on your day-to-day life—most of the battles over abortions and gay rights are fought at the state level, for instance—and you have a far better chance of influencing them than you do the hopelessly large presidential race. Sure, local issues lend themselves less to chin-scratchingly serious think pieces and so you’ll hear less about them from Buzz, but that's probably a good thing. Along with picking the next president, next month voters will decide whether marijuana can be grown in Oregon and whether California’s vicious and expensive “three strikes” law will be struck down, and a hundred other things. Those things will make a difference in people’s lives, while your vote for president—no matter how much you write about it—won’t change anything at all.