Thursday, October 05, 2006

Not a Wasted Vote

With midterm elections approaching, curiosity from people around me about my support for the Libertarian Party naturally grows. The four most common responses to my explanations are these:


  1. That sounds nice, but it would never work.

  2. That sounds nice, but no one would ever support it.

  3. That's completely crazy!

  4. Don't you feel like you're wasting your vote?



The first two are important attitudes to confront. Indeed, I am on record saying that number (2) is a major issue for the Libertarian Party. It just doesn't know how to persuade people. But both of them need more serious treatment than I can give in a blog post. Number (3) is impossible to respond to: people who think you're crazy out of hat probably can't be reasoned with. It's number (4) that I find really frustrating.

The idea that voting for third parties is a wasted vote is as prevelant as it is intuitive. Confronting it is difficult, partly because there are times when it's an absolutely reasonable objection. In general, though, my answer is that no, I do not feel that I am wasting my vote, and here's why:

I think the "wasted vote" meme rests on some unfortunate assumptions about what elections are. Elections are not decided by individual votes, and that's as it should be. In the vanishingly small number of elections where the margin is within a handful, there are always questions of the accuracy of the vote count. It simply doesn't happen that individuals elect governments. The only reason anyone thinks they do is because the major parties promote this illusion as a way of getting people to the polls on election day. So I think people need to relax a bit. Your vote isn't going to change anything directly. If that concerns you, what you need to do in addition to voting is volunteer to help persuade others to vote the way you vote. You can write editorials, work on phone drives, stand at the polling stations and hand out fliers, etc. These are ways that individuals can increase their influence over the outcome of an election. On the level of voting - sorry to say - you are but one of millions.

So why vote at all, then? The reason to vote is that elections are the only kind of opinion poll that has any legally binding effects. Politicians are required to pay attention to them. I think it's better to think of it not as a direct selection of government, but as a general review of the system. Voting is a feedback mechanism, and there's more information contained in polling results than most people realize. Politicians aren't interested solely in whether or not they won. Or, rather, their parties aren't. It also matters by how much of a margin they won, what accounts for that margin, what demographics vote for them and against them and why, etc. So while an individual's vote doesn't matter directly in terms of actually picking the winner, it does very much matter to subsequent policy. In this sense, votes for third parties pack a bigger punch than votes for one of the two traditional parties, when you think about it. Let's imagine, for example, that you voted for John Kerry in the last election not so much because you thought Kerry would make a fine president but because you were fed up with a lot of Bush's policies. Well, voting for Kerry doesn't really send that message very effectively because there are any number of reasons people voted for Kerry. There's very little to distinguish you from the people who voted for Kerry because they actually believe in all his crap. Maybe you're annoyed at Bush for his runaway spending. Fine - but to the feedback mechanism, you're indistinguishable from the people who are fed up with Bush because he doesn't spend enough! And that's sort of the nature of a major-party vote. To a certain extent pollsters can figure trends and look at demographics, etc. - but the two parties are ultimately umbrella parties. They are many things to many people. By voting Libertarian, however, you would have signed your name to a very specific list of objections to Bush's policies. And this is possible because the Libertarian Party represents a coherent philosophical alternative. Growth in the number of people voting Libertarian would indeed mean growth in small-government policies simply because politicans would begin to take notice of this particular interest group and try to make appeals to it. So one reason to vote for third parties is simply informational. If you want your vote to "count," be sure to cast it for someone who stands for something consistent rather than one of the umbrella parties that simply say what needs to be said to win.

Another reason to vote for third parties is that they are the only parties that can honestly change the system. Now, true, occasionally a maverick major-party politician comes along and shakes the tree a bit. But ultimately, the two main parties are the system. If you think that system is running fine, then of course it's appropriate to vote for them. If you're not convinced the system is working as well as it could, then a vote for one of the two majority parties that made it what it is is clearly counterproductive. The Republicans and the Democrats have their policiy differences, no doubt about it. But they're both entrenched members of the establishment. They have more in common than not, and they're both committed to minor variations on exactly the model of government we have. As was explained above, whether or not the Libertarians win the next few elections, increases in the number of people who vote for them would indeed lead to more free-market policies being implemented because politicians would want to respond to the loss of constituents. If you want to change the way politics is done - pick a third party and go with it!

Finally, I think it's faulty to think of politics simply as the next election. I don't know that the next election is very much under anyone's control. Any study of the history of democratic politics will reveal that public whim is non-trivial. Things happen at the last minute that influence outcomes. Running a political party is a bit like playing poker - of course you have to try to win every hand, but sometimes the deck is simply stacked against you in a given season. The real issue is who, over the long haul, manages to win elections more often than the others. And in this sense I think there's a tortoise and hare dimension to it. Don't worry too much about the next election. Of course it matters, and of course you should try to win it - but real success in politics takes long-term faith. There's a sense in which by voting Libertarian I'm chopping on the same tree. It may take a long time, but eventually it will be enough and the tree will fall. By consistently voting for third parties, you keep ideas on the table that might vanish from the discourse without your continued support.

So no, I don't feel like I'm wasting my vote. Quite the contrary - I feel like I am using my vote more effectively than most. Even more than that, I feel that I am using my vote in the way it was intended to be used. Voting was never meant to be a direct question of who the next office-holder will be. It was intended, rather, to ask each elligible individual's opinion about who he thinks the next office-holder should be. That sounds flippant, but it's a crucial distinction. Your opinion about who should win does not matter on any level that actually decides elections. So the best you can do is give your honest opinion and trust the system to take it into account. Don't try to "outthink" the election, in other words, to vote strategically - because your single vote doesn't have the power to be effective on that level. This is very much a categorical imperative type of argument. Consider what happens when everyone votes for the two umbrella parties. The system stagnates, the parties become further divorced from the will of the population, and policy disintegrates into compromises mutually beneficial to the politicians of these parties - which are assured of a win. If, however, everyone votes his conscience, we get a better view of what people want, and politicians have to pay more attention - or at the very least explain themselves better.

A vote cannot be wasted unless it is not cast, and since no single vote decides elections anyway, it's best not to stress too much about the immediate consequences of how you vote. There are no such consequences. Effective voting happens over the long haul, and it only means anything if people use their votes to say what they really mean. Like anything in life, the best advice you can get in voting is to stick to your guns and insist on what you really want - not on the least bad of the options others give you.

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