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