This is the most important election of our lifetime!
Every presidential election cycle, as the flaws in the Democrat and Republican nominees become more apparent, their supporters invariably turn to this phrase in an effort to convince fence-sitters that, this one last time, they must trade principle for pragmatism in defense of “the greater good.”
These voices have been particularly noticeable this year, as the spectacle of Donald Trump battling Hillary Clinton has led record numbers of voters to consider third-party candidates or not voting for president at all. Traditional voters have reacted strongly, suggesting that voting for a third party is wasting a vote while curiously arguing that not voting at all is actually voting for their candidate’s opponent.
Despite these criticisms, vacating the two-party system is a thoroughly defensible choice, and one that more Americans are inclining toward. Doing so reflects valid alternative perspectives on not just the two main candidates, but on voting and political involvement. For voters who can’t understand this mindset, here are a few considerations.
Your vote does not matter
This is probably a shocking statement to most readers, but it is nevertheless true, at least when it comes to presidential elections. In the last two cycles, roughly 130 million people turned out to vote. This makes the individual voter’s vote worth a microscopic .0000008% of the total tally.
“Ah,” you might say, “but the popular vote doesn’t elect presidents, the electoral vote does.” And you’d be right. So let’s consider the proportion of one vote in individual states. Obviously, living in a more populous state will increase the value of a vote compared to a less populous one. However, in either case, the chances of your vote actually determining the outcome is infinitesimally small.
For instance, if you were a voter in California in 2012, your vote would have been one of 13,038,547 counted. In other words, your vote would have been .000008% of the state’s total. If you had lived in Wyoming, where a mere 249,061 votes were cast, your vote would still have only counted for .0004% of the state’s total.
Simply put, the idea that one person’s vote for president is going to decide anything is a fantasy of gigantic proportions.
No, really…it doesn’t matter
But there’s another reason why your vote doesn’t matter: the President of the United States doesn’t care about what you think. Politicians are in business for themselves, not you. They’re in their positions to push their agendas, not yours. Any overlap between your political priorities and those of your preferred candidate is mere happenstance.
This is the inevitable result of attempting representative government on the scale of the modern American nation. The transformation of the American president from the founding generation’s ideal of a competent administrator of a decentralized federal government to the chief legislator of the nation has completely undone any notions that the president – or the federal government itself – is representative of the people.
There is simply no way for a president, or a congressman for that matter, to represent all of the people he’s supposed to. He can’t even represent all of the people who voted for him because they did so for different reasons and with different hierarchies of priorities. This is the reason why voters of all stripes invariably feel disappointed and betrayed at the end of their guy’s term.
But this never stops them from repeating the process during the next cycle.
But don’t we have a duty to pick the “best available option?”
This is the favorite argument of many conservatives, especially Christians, who want to twist the arms of potential non-voters. “We can’t expect perfection,” they say, “we must use discernment to find out who the best option is.” And that’s a fair enough point. The problem is, many people who make this claim will not accept that the best available option is nobody, or at least not one of the two major parties’ candidates.
The problem with this line of thinking is that many of its proponents, whether they realize it or not, accept as truth two debatable points: that, on the one hand, voting is a civic duty and, on the other, that only electable (that is, correctly-affiliated) candidates are worth voting for.
But it’s not obvious that either one of these statements is true. Given the choice between two truly horrible candidates, as is the case this year, a civic-minded voter might find a third option, or no option at all, to be the best one available.
What’s the point of voting?
The issue underlying disagreements over voting is a misalignment of goals while voting. For many Americans, the goal is to ensure that the “least bad” president gets elected, or that the better of the two flawed parties rises to or stays in power. They view voting as a means to the end of keeping the American ship afloat.
Other voters might agree that the ship is sinking, but they might view traditional voting as an ineffective means of stopping its descent. While watching their fellow passengers attempt to bail out the boat with spoons, these voters look for a bucket. Or land.
Put differently, if a voter conscientiously observes the policies, records and behavior of the two major candidates and determines that neither is likely to address the real problems facing the American population and government, he may choose to not throw any semblance of support behind either one of them. He may withhold his vote or choose to vote for a third-party candidate if he believes that supporting that candidate will effect, or at least demonstrate his support for, substantive changes in government policies.
Is not voting the same as not caring?
One of the perceptions among traditional voters is that people who don’t vote don’t care. But this is an oversimplification in the extreme, both of the attitudes of non-voters and of the importance of voting.
It is simply not the case that non-voters don’t care about the direction of the country. To once more use the analogy of the ship, they might fully realize that the vessel is sailing off course. But given the choice of two captains who don’t know the correct course, they abstain from joining in the decision to give either the wheel.
Similarly, voting is neither the only nor even the best method of effecting political change. For voters, the process and the act of voting are often the extent of their involvement in politics. Outside of electoral politics, they are mostly passive observers, perhaps devoted enough to complain about this policy or that, but infrequently willing to do much more about it than vote.
Non-voters can be, and often are, politically active. They choose, however, to channel their energy into more productive activities, such as focusing on local or state political processes (including voting) and working to convince others of their political philosophy, rather than just argue for or against certain political candidates.
The two choices of voting and being politically active are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but neither should voters condemn non-voters or third-party voters as being insufficiently concerned with political outcomes. It may serve the aggressively pro-voting population well to understand that not everyone’s range of political action is confined to the unimaginative, quadrennial, duopolistic system they embrace.
To vote or not to vote?
So should conflicted Americans vote in this election? I honestly can’t say. My only recommendation is that voters take an honest look at all the candidates and assess each one’s compatibility with their own political principles. If they can’t rationalize voting for any of them, then I would advise them to have a clear conscience as they skip over the presidential section of their ballot come November.
I would also advise voters to work harder to understand the perspective of non-voters, to hear what they are and aren’t saying. In doing so they may find that they share a lot of common goals, even if they differ on the strategies and tactics of getting there.