Thursday, February 16, 2012

Don't Throw Away Your Vote

How often have you heard it said that voting for anyone but a Republican or a Democrat is "throwing away your vote?"

There's the "lesser of two evils" argument, which declares that if you "throw away your vote" the candidate who's worse than the candidate you should vote for will get elected.

There's the "wasted vote" argument, which declares that if you don't vote for a candidate who the pollsters say has a chance of winning, you might as well not bother voting, because your candidate won't win anyway.

Then there's the "half a loaf is better than none" argument, suggesting that it's better to vote for a candidate who supports a few of the issues that are most important to you, and who has a chance of winning, than voting for the candidate truly aligned with your ideals, but who can't possibly win.

And finally, there's the "winner vs. loser" argument, wherein the voter who chooses the winning candidate gets a license to boast about it, at least until that winner starts implementing policies the voter absolutely detests. While this last example represents an argument with real payoff when placing bets with a bookie, it seems extremely short-sighted when it comes to choosing a leader.

Other arguments always seem to boil down to a variation on one of these four. Of course, if you're voting for a candidate for any other reason than the policies he stands for and his record of supporting those policies, then the arguments above may have particular appeal. May I recommend instead becoming a faithless voter?

Why is this "throwing away your vote" mantra preached so religiously, particularly by the Republican and Democrat parties and the political pundits? Could it be that they're well-positioned to profit from business as usual if the reins are handed back and forth between them on a regular basis, but face the possibility of real change upsetting their applecart if someone outside the political duopoly wins office? If voting for someone other than a Democrat or a Republican really is "throwing your vote away," why do they bother to recommend against it so strongly?

A Dose of Reality

The reality is that none of the four "throwing away your vote" arguments have much validity. Look at 2008 Presidential election results. How many states were overwhelmingly for Barack Obama or for John McCain? How few states were swing states in serious contention? By how many votes did they fall one way or the other? North Carolina, the closest state in the election, was won by 13,692 votes. Indiana, second-closest, was won by just over 26,000. It would have taken those two states and many more besides to have tipped the election to John McCain. As you can see from that example, your individual vote had no discernible impact on the election of Barack Obama over John McCain. A vote for McCain in California, which went overwhelmingly Democrat, or a vote for Obama in Texas, which went overwhelmingly Republican, was even more of a wasted vote.

So what message did your vote actually send in the 2008 election? Combined, the Democrats and Republicans garnered 129,446,455 votes out of 131,070,005, while 1,623,550 people voted for someone else. The message sent to the two major parties was that 98.76% of the voting public was satisfied with the two options they were offered for President, while only one and one-quarter percent of the population were unhappy enough to choose otherwise.

Is that really the message you intended to send to the two-party system when you voted?

There's a lot to be said for voting for a third-party candidate, or a candidate that the pollsters say can't possibly win. For one thing, pollsters have been wrong before. If you feel that those candidates declared "electable" by the pollsters and talking heads on TV don't represent your views, are you advancing your cause, or damaging it, by voting for one of those deemed "electable?" If you vote for someone with policies you don't agree with, isn't that really throwing away your vote? If you only vote for one of the two "party-approved" candidates, isn't that a tacit admission that the two parties have done an acceptable job of selecting candidates you're willing to choose between? Wouldn't a "protest vote" for a candidate who can't possibly win have more impact on the quality of future candidates offered by the two parties?

The only realistic impact you can expect from voting is knowing that you participated in the democratic process by voting for the candidate you most preferred to represent you in office, and that those in power are aware of your preference.

I like the way MarkEsq expressed it on the Absolute Write Politics and Current Events forum. Mark's a DA, by the way, and his blog is here. You can also find him on my blogroll.
MarkEsq: This repugnance people have for "throwing away a vote" always amuses me. It's predicated on the idea that their vote actually makes any difference in a national election. Which, on its own, it doesn't. If voting for [a third-party candidate] is throwing your vote away, then voting for the winning candidate is a pointless exercise in piling on.

The only tangible thing I get from voting is knowing I gave my support to the guy or gal I want to win. I don't kid myself that my vote in a presidential election made any difference to the winner, or chide myself it was wasted on a loser. I'm in Texas but I'll vote for Obama. Throwing it away? What else do I do with it?
I'm sure if I thought long and hard about it, I could come up with something profound to say about the issue as a form of wrapup, but instead, I'm going to simply quote a 22-year-old, wise beyond his years, who's also an active participant on the Absolute Write Politics and Current Events forum.
Zoombie: You know, if enough people "threw their votes away", things might actually change. But...ya know, that'd be throwing their votes away!
...and that's all I have to say about that.

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