An Expert Explains Why Americans' Vote Won't Matter

Most voters know almost nothing, and your ballot won't affect the outcome in a national election. But it's still probably a good idea to vote.

Harry Cheadle

Harry Cheadle

A voter casts a ballot during the most recent New Jersey primary election. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

On November 8, it'll be our collective civic duty to drag our collective ass to the polls and cast a ballot for the angry guy or the email lady. This is an important part of living in a democracy, and we really, really need to vote, you guys. Barack Obama says so, Kendall Jenner says so, even millennial media companies say so.

But what if, hypothetically, you were not exactly excited by the options arrayed before you? For instance, what if a two-party system forced you to choose between keeping everything pretty much the same, or setting the world on fire, and neither seemed like a decent exercise of a franchise? Should you vote for one of the other candidates, like the one who wants to abolish the army or the one who always wears blazers with jeans, even though neither of them can win? Or can you just stay home, even though you know you're really supposed to vote?

To sort through those questions, I called up Jason Brennan, a philosopher and professor at Georgetown University who wrote a book called The Ethics of Voting. He told me why voters are like people who think gasoline can put out fires and when's the right time to vote for Mussolini. Now, I feel a lot better.

VICE: Let's start with a big question. Is it your duty as a citizen to vote?
Jason Brennan: There's survey data on what people think about this, and it's clear most people think there is a duty to vote. I'm pretty skeptical of that, and here's my rationale: When you ask people why is there a duty to vote, they'll say things like: "Well, you have an obligation to exercise civic virtue." Or, "You have an obligation to do something to promote the common good." Or they'll say, "You have an obligation to pay your debt to society." The problem is, none of these reasons show why voting is special. If you want to contribute to the common good, there are millions of ways to do that.

There's one other argument that people like: They say, "Well, if nobody voted, that would be a disaster." You can see what's wrong with that: If nobody farmed, that would be a disaster, too. But it doesn't follow that you and I have an obligation to be farmers. If nobody voted, that might be a disaster, but it's not obvious that anyone in particular has to.

Is there an argument that says it's actually better not to vote?
The typical voter in the United States has extraordinarily low levels of information. They know hardly anything. They know who the president is, but they don't much else. They don't know which party controls Congress, they don't know which party passed which rules, they don't really know whether unemployment is going up or down, whether the economy is getting stronger or weaker. They basically know almost nothing that would be relevant to the election. So one argument against voting is, "If you're very badly informed, you're not doing us a favor by voting."

A metaphor I like to use is, imagine a person named Betty Benevolence. Betty means well, she wants to save the world, but she has false beliefs about how to help people. When she sees that you're on fire, she throws gasoline on you because she falsely believes that will put out the fire. If she sees you're drowning, she throws water in your face, because she falsely believes that will help you breathe. There's reason to think that a lot of voters are like that: They vote for what they perceive to be the national interest, but they don't know much about how politics works, how economics works, how policies work. So they're voting for things that undermine rather than promote their goals.

So say you're one of those rare voters who isn't crazy or stupid or uninformed, and you also are determined to vote for whatever reason. But say you also don't really like either major party candidate. What's the argument for voting for the lesser of two evils?
When you're voting, you can either decide, I want to express my fidelity to what I really care about, or you can say, I'm just going to contribute to making this a little better than it otherwise would be. If you're having an election between Mussolini and Hitler, and you decide, Mussolini's awful, but I'd much rather have him than Hitler and you vote for Mussolini, you're part of the group that's making the world less unjust than it otherwise would be. It's hard to see why that's really blameworthy.

People who do vote for a third party will say things like, "You're reinforcing the two-party system," and I just don't think that's the case, because [a major party winning] is going to happen anyways. People will claim, "If enough of us defect and go to the other party, we're giving them a viable threat—if we're on the left-leaning side, they'll have to move a little leftward to keep us... We're preventing them from being moderate, that's our strategy." The problem with that is, empirically when you try to test whether that works, it doesn't look like it really matters much because of the type of voting system we have. People who threaten to leave and go to a third party in effect become irrelevant, because you don't have to get the majority of votes, you just have to get the most votes.

Let's say I live in a deep-blue place like New York City, where none of the races I can vote in—from president to congress—are close at all. My vote really doesn't matter. Is it better to cast my vote for some third-party candidate I like more than Clinton, or should I just stay home?
In most voting systems in most elections that are nationally run, individual inputs don't make a difference either way. There's debate among economists and political scientists about how to calculate the probability that your vote will be decisive. On one of the models that people use—it's called the Brennan-Lomasky model—the chances that your vote would be decisive in a major national election in the US are vanishingly small. They're on the order of the chances that your phone is going to spontaneously quantum tunnel through your desk. On another model, called the Gelman-Kaplan model, you have a higher chance depending on what state you're in. Living in northern Virginia, I have something like a one-in-20-million chance of being decisive in the next presidential election. But you being in New York, you have no chance at all. So it's certainly harmless to vote for a third party.

OK, so most voters are idiots, and your vote doesn't count. Got it. Is there a good argument for voting? Can we end this on a high note?
It's not that you're obligated to vote, but it's a good thing to do. If you're a well-informed voter, you're doing the country a favor. It's like volunteering in a soup kitchen—you're doing a small bit of good. If you stay home, you're not blameworthy for that. But by deciding to get up and do something, you're worthy of praise.

When I go to a sports game, I do the wave. It's not because I think if I fail to do the wave, the wave will stop. [I do it] because I like participating with others—this is a chance to be part of something. The reason people vote is that they want to be part of a group—they want to be part of the group that is deciding the future of the country. They recognize that their individual inputs aren't going to be decisive. It's about, do you want to be part of the group that's making the decision, or do you want to stay home?

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