Vote Attack (Or non-vote attack, to be precise)

Jeff votes. I die.

Who knew that people take voting so seriously?

Yesterday, over lunch, I got into a bit of a heated debate with a fellow intern about my voting habits. The conversation, which began with the respectful, but always provocative, question “Can I ask you a personal question” quickly turned personal. The personal question (which should not be placed in the “personal questions” cupboard next to “Have you ever had a venereal disease” or “What are the first 9 digits of your Social Security number”) was “Whom will you be voting for in the next election?” Slightly disappointed that the question didn’t concern the beanie resting on my Yiddishe kop or the undressed salad adorning my plate, I responded with my usual spiel about “rational non-voting.” I explained that, in one sense, my voting in a large national election would be extremely irrational because the probability that my vote would decide the election is infinitesimally small. I added that I simply could not muster up enough excitement about any particular candidate in the upcoming election to justify the effort of going to the polls. My non-vote would thus be “rational” in the sense that the costs of going out and voting (waiting in line, being accosted by campaign supporters, listening to ignoramuses discuss Obama’s “socialism” or Romney’s Mormonism at the polling place) would probably outweigh any personal benefits (be they emotional or expressive) I would get from casting my vote.

I knew I would probably have to address all the usual counter-arguments, and I did.

“What if everyone thought the way you do? Then nobody would vote!” Not everyone thinks the way I do, I told him. If they did, my vote would matter, and I would get off my rear and vote.

The rapper formerly known as P. Diddy votes. Do you?

“But you have a civic duty to take part in the the democratic process!” “Civic duty,” I argued, is not a transcendent moral idea, but a social norm to which I do not feel beholden. Besides, “civic duty” would only require that I participate in the electoral process. I could enter the voting booth, vote randomly, and have fulfilled my “civic duty.”

Then it got real personal.

“Why,” demanded my colleague, “do you even bother working at an organization that takes part in the fight to defend liberty (I work for an educational non-profit that aims to educate students about America’s founding and the principle of liberty) when you have no desire to effect change through the corresponding political process?”


In spite of its absurd, non-sequiturial nature, this question still really offended me. My coworker was either implying a) that by not voting I was only acting based on rational self-interest (in this context – translate: selfishness) and, therefore, that my dedication to my work at the foundation somehow contradicted my voting behavior, or b) that my work at the organization was as insignificant as a single vote in the upcoming election would be.

I tried to explain that my voting behavior was only based on rational self-interest because my vote would statistically add nothing to the benevolent cause of “defending liberty.” If my vote mattered, I would certainly vote for change! No dice. I tried to explain that my work at the foundation, unlike a single vote, added real marginal value to the organization and that I was having a recognizable, if small, positive impact on our cause. Once again, no dice.

The conversation thankfully concluded with the end of our lunch hour. But as I reflected on our exchange later that afternoon, I started to realize that my arguments about the irrationality of voting behavior and my personal cost/benefit calculus could never penetrate a more powerful force: My coworker’s steadfast devotion to the cause of voting qua voting. Voting, I came to realize, was my coworker’s Occupy Wall Street, his Animal Rights, his Darfur. And, when all the objective logic melted away, all he was left with was his personal schedule of values, the defining element of his own, totally valid, cost/benefit calculus. Maybe he loved voting so much because he felt a subjective sense of duty. Maybe he just loved the rush of pulling the lever. It didn’t matter. In the end, all that mattered was that he loved voting and that he thought others should too.

Some people love voting.

Others don’t.

I can dig that.

Note: Since this post’s publication, the author has decided to cast a vote in the upcoming presidential election.


– Winch


13 thoughts on “Vote Attack (Or non-vote attack, to be precise)

  1. What about local elections for which there is a chance that your vote(s) will matter? Do you donate money/time to political (or other) campaigns, local or national, that matter to you?

    • Glucose – Regarding your first question, I would certainly be more inclined to vote in a local election than I would in a national election from a purely statistical standpoint. The vote would simply matter more, and I could actually have a recognizable impact on policy. As for your second question, the truth is that I don’t really pay all that much attention to local politics or to politics in general for that matter. I don’t get worked up over individual candidates and the political circus. I’m much more interested in political and economic ideas and how they develop over time. But, if I were to find a candidate that I really like, I would certainly devote money and/or time to his or her campaign. Money and time, unlike a single vote in most instances, can have a measurable impact on the outcome of an election by helping to mobilize voters.

    • And thanks for the question!

      • So you are presumably at the polls already? Also, you can sign up for absentee ballot and get rid of many of your concerns, correct?

      • I don’t understand your first question. And yes, I could sign up for an absentee ballot. But I really don’t feel enough attachment to voting or any particular candidate in this instance to go out of my way to do so. If I get worked up some more about Romney or Johnson, I might just apply for one.

  2. If you’re voting in local elections, you are already at the polls and can vote in state, national elections, no?

    • Well, yes. But just because it makes more sense to vote in local elections from a statistical standpoint doesn’t mean that I care enough about local politics to show up at the polls.

      I see you’re very determined to get me to go vote. You should talk to my coworker.

      • not at all….vote, don’t vote – that’s up to you. I’m just poking holes in your logic, or at least attempting to.

        Your costs are limited – paper, printing ink, a few minutes to fill out the absentee voter form, an envelope and stamp. Then the marginal cost going forward is very little time, a stamp, and envelope (although they may give you the envelope to mail back your form when voting).

        Not only that – this way you ensure no one wastes his/her time counting your vote unless the vote is close enough.

      • Ah, ok I see your point. Now let me try to put the kabosh on this discussion. Why is it that you don’t register to be a member of the National Coin Collectors Association or the New Jersey Flea Marketeers Club? Membership is free and online registration takes about 3 minutes! You probably don’t sign up for these groups because you don’t see value of any kind in doing so that would justify even the lowest cost.

        I ascribe value to voting in two ways: 1) I find an election personally valuable if I know that I am contributing to its outcome. 2) I find it valuable if I get a rush of emotional energy from voting for someone or something that I truly support. In this particular election, I don’t really stand behind any of the candidates, so I won’t get that rush of excitement that comes along with associating with a particular candidate. And I am certainly not contributing to its outcome. Voting in this election is therefore, to me, without value. The costs might be low. But the costs of lots of things are low. It doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and do all of them.

      • If
        Sum (Value 1, Value 2) for all elections Don’t Vote


        That’s fair.

      • Yes.

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