Nov 20, 2010

Wherein I fail to justify why I bothered voting

It's a good thing most people aren't good at math, because the sham that is voting would be a much harder sell. Instead, we have politicians, pundits, entertainers, and celebrities get up every year and sing (sometimes literally) the virtues of voting. It must be nice to live in a fantasy world!

Because that's what it is: a fantasy. Your vote doesn't matter one iota. It never did. It most likely never will. Let's look at some depressing examples.

Where I live, in Arkansas, we had ~1.6 million registered voters on election day this month. A 2009 Census Bureau estimate puts Arkansas' population at just shy of 2.9 million. They also estimate that around 2.1 million of those (or ~75%) are 18 years of age or older (and, thus, old enough to register).

Arkansas No. of People Percent
Total state population
2009 estimate
- 18 years and over
based on 2008 estimate
2,175,756 75.3%
- Registered voters 1,638,135 56.7%
- Actually voted 779,956 27%
Sources: 1, 2, 3

So roughly 27% of the population in Arkansas voted a few weeks ago which was a turnout (of total registered folks) of about 47% which is fairly average as far as elections go.  Half of the people either forgot, couldn't make it, or didn't think it was worth the time. That puts your chances of casting the tie vote at about 1 in 1100. Now, the formula I just used assumes some fairly unrealistic things, namely that each voter's vote is essentially a coin-toss between only two choices. In reality, there may be 1 - 5 choices and people rarely ever actually vote by tossing nickels.

So even in incredibly unrealistic and optimistic circumstances that exist only in a lab environment your vote doesn't come close to mattering. And this is just in Arkansas, not exactly a very dynamic or interesting voting sample.

This is because of the winner-take-all approach to elections. It only takes one more vote than the rest to be declared victorious. All other candidates get squat. (Okay, so in some states there are reasons to get some part of the vote, such as here where you need to maintain a minimum of 3% of the vote to avoid having to re-register with x number of signatures in order to show up on the ballot. Provided you meet the minimum each year I believe you only need to declare your intention to run and don't have to round up signatures. This applies to parties as a whole or, if independent, an individual I believe.) This leads to embarrassingly pathetic concession speeches wherein they attempt to reassure their supporters that even though it was all for naught it really wasn’t, promise! Case in point: Lincoln, who this year who lost to a guy with the charisma of a roast beef sandwich.

Not only does your vote matter very little, but it isn't particularly simple to get your unimportant vote cast in the first place. Even assuming the bare minimum of effort (i.e., coin-tossing or eenie-meenie-minie-mo), you still have to mail a registration form which requires either driving to go pick one up or printing one off from their website. Once registered you'll have an assigned location to go to vote, which may involve waiting in long lines depending on what time of the day you can make it over there. Oh, and it's on the weekday — you don't have a day job, do you? Oh, well, too bad. Guess you'll have to take time off or do it over lunch (instead of eating) or go after work along with everyone else (so expect a huge crowd!). Woe be to you if you didn't register early enough, didn't fill your form out correctly, or got there too late.

Again, that assumes you're going only to randomly fill in circles.

If you actually care a little about things, you've got a ton more work. Ideally, it requires keeping up with political news, researching issues and candidates, listening to debates, and possibly deep interpersonal thinking on your own political philosophy so that you can compare the candidates/issues you've researched against your own opinions. This is, again, ideal, but even doing half of that requires a lot of time and effort which you may not have. It also, to some degree, helps to have some inkling of interest to keep you motivated, which, again, you may not have.

Because an open election system like we have kind of assumes naively optimistically that those voting are both educated (in general and on the issues at stake) and motivated. Having ignorant or apathetic voters breaks the system down by undercutting the value of hosting democratic elections over something else. The system also assumes that people are willing and capable of making time and effort for the good of... what? Oh yeah, nothing, because their vote doesn't matter!

So half the population every election has already subconsciously figured it out: it ain't worth it.

And I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of other aspects that cloud the issue further: gerrymandering, campaign/election laws, and the myriad of other factors that all mix into this mess.

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