How Millions of Voters Delude Themselves and Undermine Democracy | Libertarian Party of San Francisco

How Millions of Voters Delude Themselves and Undermine Democracy

You'd think it would be more obvious to more people...

    It's kind of amazing that something so central to many of the issues we see and read and hear about in the news every day, something on which billions of dollars and countless hours of scheming by political "professionals" are expended every year, continues to be so widely misunderstood. Yes, that description can be applied to government itself, but here I'm simply talking about voting. If you're a Libertarian, or even just a free-thinking person who's ever confessed to somebody else that you plan to vote for a candidate who isn't among the perceived front-runners or those declared viable by mainstream media outlets in a particular race, you've probably heard some version of a response like, "Why are you wasting your vote? They can't win. Be realistic. If we don't vote for Tweedledee, we're going to get Tweedledum."

    The truth that's overlooked in such thinking is this: When you vote in any election in which many thousands of people or more are voting, you can be virtually certain that your individual vote will NOT change the outcome. Changing the outcome of such an election requires the votes of many other people whose behavior at the ballot box you can't control. Voting on the wishful premise that your vote might change the outcome of an election is LESS realistic than voting on the basis of thinking a Libertarian might get elected! Libertarians actually do get elected far more often than a single vote changes the outcome of any major election (there are hundreds of Libertarians holding public office around the United States right now). In the very rare instances when a major election is anywhere close to being decided by a single vote, there's almost certain to be a recount in which the vote totals will change anyway.

     So in terms of how you choose to vote, it really doesn't matter whether your chosen candidate has a good chance of winning or not, because whether they are likely to win or not, you won't be changing that outcome with your vote. The popular idea that you're "throwing away your vote" by voting for a candidate who "can't win", as opposed to supposedly "making your vote count" by voting for one who "can win", has no basis in reality. In fact, mathematically speaking, the fewer votes a candidate receives, the greater the proportional impact that your vote for them will have! To take a simple example, if someone receives only 10 other votes in an election, then your vote for them increases their vote total by 10%. But casting your ballot for someone who receives 1,000 other votes in an election increases their vote total by only a tenth of a percent.

    Nor do you get any special credit, or benefit, for picking the response option that turns out to be most popular among your fellow poll-takers; at best you'll get the psychological satisfaction of having voted for the winner (if that's the sort of thing that makes you feel good). The resulting warm fuzzy feeling might typically last you a few days after Election Day. However once the candidate takes office and starts doing stuff you don't like (which, admit it, happens way more often than not), you'll be stuck with the embarrassment, shame, and feeling of having been suckered into supporting a bad politician for the rest of their term or beyond.

     So if it's all but guaranteed your votes won't change any election outcomes (except maybe at the local level if you live in a very small town), and there's generally no personal well-being to be gained by voting for candidates who end up getting elected, does this mean voting is a waste of time? Not at all. Imagine you're part of a crowd of hundreds of people who are trying to roll a huge, heavy fallen log out of the road. When you put your hands on the log and add your energy in pushing, or stop to take a breather, you can't see any effect – whether you push or slack off seems to make no difference whatsoever in terms of whether the log rolls forward or it doesn't. Nevertheless you know that at some point when enough people are pushing hard enough, the log will start moving, because you've already seen it happen. All you can do is your part. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "What you do may seem insignificant, but it is vitally important that you do it."

     Voting can be seen as akin to taking an opinion poll and adding your mark next to one of the response options. If most of the people taking the poll happen to choose the same response option as you do, then the poll results (if it's a fair poll) will show this option as being the most popular, but that part is beyond your control. When taking public opinion polls, most people seem to recognize that they are simply giving their opinions, not measurably changing the poll results, and consequently give their honest opinions rather than attempting to answer based on how they think others will respond. But for some reason when it comes to elections, a lot of people apparently think they can "game the system" and change the outcome by voting "strategically" based on how they expect others will vote. This imagined "strategic voting" is in reality rank nonsense. Those who believe in it have not properly understood the math or the probabilities involved. Furthermore it is actually undermining democracy, because to the extent that voters cast their ballots based on how they think others will vote rather than voting their own actual preferences, election outcomes will not reflect the true preferences of voters. And when election outcomes don't reflect the true preferences of the electorate, that means democracy is broken.

      Bottom line: The smart and responsible way to vote in any major election is to vote for the candidates you would most like to see do well, regardless of what you think their chances are of being elected. For me, this almost always means voting Libertarian when that option is on the ballot. Even when our candidates don't win, adding to Libertarian vote totals helps the party and advances the cause of freedom. Above and beyond this, voting is an act of solidarity with others who believe as you do. Together we can roll the dead log of statism out of the path of human and universal progress. It is always true (assuming the election isn't rigged) that if enough people vote for a candidate, that person WILL win. Essentially, each of us has a choice: To vote in a manner which may superficially feel clever but actually hurts our own franchise both individually and collectively, or to be part of the solution – a solution which is always possible, and will manifest itself in reality as soon as enough people choose to be part of it.

You'd think it would be more obvious to more people...