I Let My Voice Be Heard on Election Day!

by Don Boudreaux on February 12, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Today is the day of the Chesapeake Primaries.  Citizens of Virginia, Maryland, and DC get to vote for their parties’ presidential nominees.  I live in Virginia.  I don’t vote.

At some point I’ll write a longer essay justifying my refusal to vote in political elections, but here I’ll content myself to riff just a bit on non-voting.  I’m prompted to so riff because, on the radio this morning, I heard a reporter proclaim "Let your voice be heard.  Vote!"

My first reaction to this all-too-common claim is that no single vote is ever "heard" in any meaningful way.  Whether your preferred candidate wins (or loses) by 10,462 votes rather than by 10,461 vote is irrelevant.  How "heard" is your vote in such a case?

Indeed, my not-voting is surely heard at least as loudly and as relevantly as would be any vote that I cast.  The lower the turnout in elections, the louder the message that the choices either stink or are too close to each other to matter.  Why is this result not a message?  Surely it is.  Surely it speaks just as clearly and as loudly as does a vote for candidate Smith.

I have several reasons for not voting.  Having my non-vote "voice" heard is just one of them.

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{ 50 comments }

Randy February 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

I agree. But perhaps what we really need is a "none of the above" option – just to keep the bastards from claiming a "mandate".

mark seery February 12, 2008 at 12:23 pm

A none of the above option is absolutely needed. In some countries it is possible to diberately cast an "informal" vote, such as for Mickey Mouse. Informal votes are counted and assumed to be a reflection of the electorates unhappiness with all parties.

Avatar300 February 12, 2008 at 12:56 pm

I was going to vote in the MN caucus, but then I decided that the voting populace is a random enough sample that it would all work out. Plus a Netflix DVD arived that day, and looked more entertaining.

Alex February 12, 2008 at 1:06 pm

In the general election and some republican winner-take-all primaries, this line of reasoning holds.

In the proportionally-divided democrat primaries, however, your vote appears to be heard much more.

Joe February 12, 2008 at 1:13 pm

I have heard it claimed that non-votes are basically ignored since they are considered to be messages of some sort of general content, as opposed to dissatisfaction with the choices at hand. I don't remember what exactly the justification was for this; I heard it a long time ago when I was still young and naive about electoral politics. I'm also not sure how prevalent this view is, but it makes me more inclined to register my distaste by writing in bogus candidates.

Chris February 12, 2008 at 1:32 pm

I think that you are right when you say that non-votes are heard just as loudly as the 10,001st vote beyond what is necessary to win.

Unfortunately, I think that just means that it isn't heard at all – politicians don't care about the message, they only care about winning.

Mcwop February 12, 2008 at 2:02 pm

I just wish we did not have to go to a polling place to vote. I like Oregon's vote-by-mail system.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40032-2004Dec31.html

mike February 12, 2008 at 2:10 pm

There is absolutely no justification you can give for not voting, barring physical inability. A free democratic society depends on the voting process to function. It may not be perfect, but that is no excuse. How can someone so right on politcal economics be so wrong on this fundamental idea? Or are you feeling guilty because you didn't vote and are now trying to justify it to yourself?

Randy February 12, 2008 at 2:50 pm

Mike,

"There is absolutely no justification you can give for not voting…"

And who exactly do you think that I'm required to give a justification to?

Let me put it another way… I assume that you believe that we must all participate in "democracy" in order to preserve our freedom. So what's the point if the "democracy" itself has become a threat to freedom? Why participate in a sham?

Eric February 12, 2008 at 3:08 pm

An unfree democratic society also depends on the voting process to function. Otherwise it would not be a democratic society. (See: Russia. They cast their votes to elect the government, but that does not ensure their freedom. It isn't a voter turnout problem that's keeping them down. It's their votes.)

Anyway, "free" and "democratic" do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Democracy itself is only a piece of freedom.

Keith February 12, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Quote from Alex: "In the proportionally-divided democrat primaries, however, your vote appears to be heard much more."

Well there's a choice: black socialist or female socialist (and in the interest of equal time: or the crotchety old socialist). Its a bit like being asked: Do you want to drown in the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean (or the Indian Ocean).

Keith February 12, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Quote from Alex: "In the proportionally-divided democrat primaries, however, your vote appears to be heard much more."

Well there's a choice: black socialist or female socialist (and in the interest of equal time: or the crotchety old socialist). Its a bit like being asked: Do you want to drown in the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean (or the Indian Ocean).

shawn February 12, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Professor Boudreaux; I'd love to see your longer writings on this. I've mentioned something like this, and have only had the "if there are 3 people voting on where to go to lunch, your vote matters. If there are 1,000,000 people, it doesn't" line to use to explain the futility.

Flash Gordon February 12, 2008 at 3:53 pm

I support your decision not to vote. Now, please get as many others in Academia, professors and students alike, to join you.

Don Boudreaux February 12, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Just one clarification for now: I have never in my life voted, and I emphatically do not feel the least bit guilt. In fact, I am proud that I do not participate in the process. Only by not participating do I retain full rights to complain and even, if the opportunity arise, to resist.

Barkley Rosser February 12, 2008 at 5:17 pm

Aw heck, Don, we know why you are not voting. It is because you are a good fan of public choice theory, and you know that it is an irrational waste of time to do so!

brotio February 12, 2008 at 5:30 pm

"Only by not participating do I retain full rights to complain and even, if the opportunity arise, to resist." – Don Boudreaux

Professor,

There we disagree. Whether I choose to vote or not, I claim the same right to complain and resist as you do.

Per Kurowski February 12, 2008 at 5:50 pm

That you want to register your non-vote loud and clear is perfectly valid, though if that’s the case I hope you are doing so by other means that this blog.

But to say that you would not vote because if “your preferred candidate wins (or loses) by 10,462 votes rather than by 10,461 vote is irrelevant”, is once again a very surprising thing for me to hear from a university professor. I can understand that reasoning from a poor uneducated villager but… from a professor?

Martin Brock February 12, 2008 at 5:53 pm

I don't often vote, much less support anyone, but I felt strongly enough about foreign policy and military issues this year and positive enough about Ron Paul to support him actively. The President has incredible influence in this area, and Ron Paul is uniquely principled and trustworthy, and he's the real McCoy as a non-interventionist.

Now, he's basically out of the race, and he's ruled out a third party. I never expected him to win the Republican nomination, but I hoped he'd run as a Libertarian again after attracting attention in the Republican primary, and I still think he could have a lot of impact this way. Maybe he wouldn't win, but he'd drive Obama further from McCain's unchecked imperialism and broadcast a broader, classically liberal message more effectively than anyone has in my lifetime. But the man's word is his bond, so he won't be on any third party ticket in the general election. I'm disappointed and back to supporting no one.

Basically, I agree that majoritarianism is not democracy and that a majoritarian representative assembly is far from democratic. I have far more influence over the selection of shoes at WalMart.

Mathieu Bédard February 12, 2008 at 7:23 pm

I really hope to see this longer essay coming!

muirgeo February 12, 2008 at 7:56 pm

I think voting matters just as buying things matters. I vote because there are candidates I think will improve our country and our future. If I didn't see a candidate I liked I wouldn't vote either.

Likewise I voted not to have an SUV or to shop at Walmart or to ever go to a professional sports event. I don't mind that these things like bad politicians exist but I am gladdened to know they profit not from me ( although they do in some cases steal from me via the government). But that's where my political vote comes in hopefully to stop the stealing.

Indeed I agree with the professor. We all DON'T vote everyday with our wallets and that makes a big difference.

Nick February 12, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Professor I agree with you about many things, but not about this. You sound like a person rejecting a perfectly good T-bone steak because fillet mignon isn't available. Our system is certainly not perfect, but nobody (including you as far as I can tell) has yet designed a better one.

Jay February 12, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Professor: I'm with you in not voting. I plan on spending my day doing productive things and attempting to maximize my utility. No sense wasting my time going to vote in an election where the probability of me swinging it is practically 0%. Think of the wasted gas, depreciation of my vehicle, the unnecessary risk of death, and of course the opportunity costs.

piperTom February 12, 2008 at 9:43 pm

I understand Don's reasons for not voting. But I still vote … Libertarian. Practically speaking, the Libertarians serve as a None Of The Above. On rare occasions, one of them gets elected and carries the gadfly shtick up another level.

T. Fry February 12, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Dr. Boudreaux,

I 2nd the motion to hear you expand on your reasons for not voting. I am from Missouri and I also did not vote and for the following reasons.

1. I did not want to endorse any of the candidates and risk adding to their freedom robbing big government mandates and tendencies, however small my voice to this end. I was also completely lukewarm about Romney who by the time it got to Missouri, was the only one left that was even "hold your nose and vote" "lesser of the evils" worthy choice, and…

2. In our primaries in Missouri, like in many states I suppose one has to declare one's party in front of one's friends and neighbors and in my neighborhood that is not a good idea if one wants to live peaceably and not be the subject of stares and behind the back conversations for the rest of one's life in the community. I belong to no party, but in recent decades have almost always voted Republican. I also live in a university community where to be voting Republican makes one a social outcast and I would prefer my views be private rather than deal with being made a social outcast. Trust me, voting for freedom is a lost cause where I live. Under the circumstances, voting for the lesser of evils, however lukewarm my desire to do so, is thus not worth the trouble since I have no desire to be a reformer or martyr.

I think a "none of the above" category is a great idea, however it is most likely no politician lawmaker would ever support such an idea, given their desire to be validated by elections and given how widespread is the propaganda propagated belief that it is always good to vote (see the posts above).

Also, regarding the above comments that a low voter turnout means general satisfaction, I agree, however it can also mean no real choice. Likewise, a high turnout can also mean the stakes are very high, like for instance in the Ukraine where the choice is back to Communism or a chance at freedom or say in Cuba or north Korea, where it can mean being left alone or being outcast or thrown in prison or worse. Come to think of it, the latter is a bit like my university community – i.e., a one party state.

T. Fry

Ed February 12, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Actually you did vote and, even worse, you voted for the current system not against it. And by helping to convince other like minded people not to vote, you have an even bigger role as an opinion leader, and thereby cast more votes.

How is this?

Since other people vote, and you are trapped in the results of our political system, you are in fact voting to give other people's votes in the current system more power (against you). You (and those you convince) essentially are voting to double the voting power of those you disagree with and to propagate the current system of politicians pandering to those who want to confiscate your money.

It is no different than had you cast your vote and those of the people you convince for . . . . the current system. Instead of getting libertarian candidates who will only confiscate your money for classic government, you are voting for evangelical nutjobs like Huckabee and confiscators like Hillary.

The political market is quite responsive. It produces candidates who respond to those who vote. Evangelicals, income redistributers, and those who want something (government spending) for nothing (tax cuts and borrowing) all vote in large collective numbers. Why do you think we got Medicare Part D? Old people vote on average. Why are student loan programs stagnating or declining? Young people don't vote on average. If a lot of libertarians voted, we'd get neither program.

The political market is responding perfectly to those who exercise their 'purchasing' power. The market is ignoring people like you for good reason. If you are not going to buy apples, and thus incentivize them to carry apples, the political merchants will only sell lemons.

(This by the way is why I don't particularly complain about politicians. I think they are often pandering jerks as you correctly point out. But they are doing precisely what their voters (and by extension those who don't vote) want. The candidates would change their behavior overnight if voters voted for the right reasons. On a collective basis, Americans are poorly educated fantasists and your lead on not voting is not helping).

In sum, you are trapped in the system (enforced by the IRS, court system, police, etc.) and thus not voting is voting. There is no way around it, short of violent revolution or moving to Canada (which would be even worse from your perspective).

Now I understand this is problematic when you see little difference on the spectrum from Obama to McCain. But that is one reason guys like Grover Norquist exist. There is no reason that libertarians could not start similar groups and pressure politicians to move in their direction. I guarantee that if enough people like you voted and acted this way, politicians would move in that direction in whole or in part. As you often point out, politicians want their jobs above all else and you (and those like you) most certainly are no threat to their jobs.

Why, I bet a well-written and informative blog would be a great place to start educating and leading people in the right direction — to vote libertarian!

Nathan February 13, 2008 at 12:07 am

Do more people vote, or play the lottery? I am talking about powerball where it is a fixed number of times per year.

David Hays February 13, 2008 at 12:24 am

On the rare occasions when a candidate I voted for won, I always ended up more disappointed than I was on those many occasions when the candidate I voted for lost, except when we replaced the crazy mayor in this town of 1,000 souls.

David Hays
Grand Coteau

Devin Snead February 13, 2008 at 12:59 am

Political elections should be more aptly dubbed as being the "Pick Which Criminal Can Run Other People's Lives and Spend Their Own Money Better Than They Can Contest."

Niccolo Adami February 13, 2008 at 1:08 am

It would be nice if we could organize an anti-voting campaign to be as vociferous as the pro-voting campaigns. I've been attempting to do this locally, but nationally I see no success.

tiger February 13, 2008 at 1:58 am

Some times Don, you're a moron. Not voting does not do anything but send a "signal to the market" that you don't care.

For the rest of you thinking of sitting out both the primary and the presidential election it's all well and good that you have some kind of public sector and/or private college gigs that won't matter (in fact might get better for you) if Obama is elected but seriously, those of us in the private world (like me in the INSURANCE business) don't want to lose our jobs because you're being cute with your voting rights. Get your lazy, "I'm protesting by doing nothing aren't I smart" a$$es out there in November and at least vote AGAINST socialism…so unemployment doesn't hit 12% again.

mpkomara February 13, 2008 at 2:21 am

Ed, I agree with your analysis of the professor's position. Someone with such a wide sphere of influence has the chance to affect the results of elections.

However, I would like you to readdress the fact that when old people vote the result is Medicare, and when young people don't vote the result is the decline of student loan programs. If libertarians don't like student loan programs, and a higher turnout of student voters led to student loan programs, then shouldn't libertarians be satisfied in the lack of student votes?

Extending this to Medicare– if less old people voted, the program would be less probable to exist, then shouldn't we conclude that libertarians should encourage old people not to vote?

flix February 13, 2008 at 8:02 am

Don,
I fully support your decision not to vote and I agree that a NOTA option should be available. However I would like to know… Did you consider voting for Ron Paul?

Randy February 13, 2008 at 8:35 am

Tiger,

"…at least vote AGAINST socialism…"

That isn't one of the choices – and it never will be.

Kiran February 13, 2008 at 9:13 am

Professor,

I would love to hear your detailed view on why you would not like to vote.

Sometimes it isn't enough for a voice to be heard. It has to be heard saying something. The problem with not voting is that it does not send a clear message.

As explained above, it could mean that there is a feeling of general satisfaction with the choices available or the fact that both the choices are equally bad or simply apathy. How would you expect people looking at the stats figure out why there was a low voter turnout? While one vote of 100000 does not make a difference, one vote less also does not.

This reminds of me of your recent blog post where in one of your letters you ask if one person's income tax is such a minuscule part of the federal budget that you need not pay it. I think the same logic applies here.

I think it makes it easier for the politicians to target the people who have actually made the effort to go and vote and try and influence their opinions.

This is exactly what is happening in my home country India. You might want to have a look over there if you want to know where this policy will lead you. And the end is not good.

I_am_a_lead_pencil February 13, 2008 at 9:22 am

muirgeo said:

"Likewise I voted not to have an SUV or to shop at Walmart or to ever go to a professional sports event. I don't mind that these things like bad politicians exist but I am gladdened to know they profit not from me ( although they do in some cases steal from me via the government)."

The SUV/Wal-mart analogy doesn’t quite work.

My decision to buy a Honda is never overruled by the rest of the voting public who can see to it that (despite the Honda I just ordered) an SUV is delivered to my doorstep instead.

vidyohs February 13, 2008 at 9:32 am

"Our system is certainly not perfect, but nobody (including you as far as I can tell) has yet designed a better one.

Posted by: Nick | Feb 12, 2008 8:21:14 PM"

Actually Nick, there was a better system (not perfect but a far better one then what you have today) and that system was the one our founding fathers put in place and which lasted until the civil war.

In that system only men of substance, property owners (makers) could vote.

There was sound reasoning behind that. People who had no actual investment in the nation and had nothing to offer but their labor were, as we were emphatically warned, more inclined to vote largess for themselves at other's expense. We were warned against a democracy, but our ancestors screwed it up and allowed the 14th Amendment.

Furthermore, if everyone would actually read the Constitution that they love to talk about they would see that at some point in our past, and I believe it is a past not too distant, we allowed tampering with the Electoral College and now that isn't even the effective tool it once was.

The process of the Electoral College described in the Constitution, Art.2, Sec 1, para(s) 1, 2, 3, & 4., is not what has been imposed on us today. Should we return to it, it might make some positive difference in how candidates campaigned.

For those readers who are particularly obtuse, you will note that the Constitution does not say anything at all about a "winner take all" counting of electorals votes in a state. The constitution descibes an Electoral college that should produce a winner reflected in DIRECT correlation to the popular vote.

In example, if Texas has 48 electoral districts and McCain wins 25 of them, then on the final tally he should only receive that 25 while the democrat would receive 23.

Under the present corrupted system, McCain by winning 25 would receive all 48.

So, Nick, yes there was a better system. Your only question, I suggest, is who did it and why. But, if you find the answer to be corrupt politicians in a two party system, you win the jackpot.

vidyohs February 13, 2008 at 10:02 am

Like Dr. Boudreaux I do not vote in any election, not even local. I quit in 2000 for reasons tied directly into my challenge to all to tell us the exact legal mechanism that puts a free individual under the jurisdiction of the Constitution.

Voting is not that mechanism, it is an indication that the mechanism has triggered.

By non-voting as a principle of showing disapproval, what one offers as a sign of disapproval they simply take (as someone up thread said) as a sign that you don't care or you acquiesce on the candidates and the final selection.

I'd much rather a separate booth be setup where a "Forget these clowns and start over" poll could be taken. If the votes at that poll outnumber the votes for candidates then America gets a mulligan.

I have registered my permanant vote in the only meaningful way I could.

I did so because long long ago, way before muirduck had what he mistook for a legitimate thought, I was up close and personal with the enormous, mind boggling, and casual waste and squandering of the people's fruits of labor.

Did you catch the word 'casual' in that last sentence? The waste and squander is provoking enough, but when it is done with such a 'who gives a shit it's only government money' attitude and statements, then I knew I had to find a way out.

Voting was not the answer, far smarter and better leaders than I have gone that route for absolutely no results.

The Constitution has a serious fatal flaw in it, Art 1, Sec 5, para 2, which may have been unintentional or deliberate, doesn't matter because it is there. "Each house may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….". Tragic mistake.

That single sentence is the fount of all the corruption we see in government.

muirgeo February 13, 2008 at 10:25 am

Actually Nick, there was a better system …..

In that system only men of substance, property owners (makers) could vote.

There was sound reasoning behind that. People who had no actual investment in the nation and had nothing to offer but their labor were, as we were emphatically warned, more inclined to vote largess for themselves at other's expense. We were warned against a democracy, but our ancestors screwed it up and allowed the 14th Amendment.

Posted by: vidyohs

Wow, vidyohs laid bare for all to see. I suggest you run for office on such a platform. But the good news is you finally admitted you don't vote.

The whole reason I asked you that question a while was because indeed it would be hypocritical if you did admit to voting. Likewise if admitted you didn't vote I knew it would be easy to show you were more of an autocrat or in favors of a ruling elite completely at odds with any professed claim to be for freedom. And completely against what our country was founded on.

You truly want to return to a time when all worked on the lands as serfs for a few wealthy land owners. We already fought that revolution. But indeed it's good to know you don't vote and that I get to help make the rules for you (and me) to live by if you so choose to stay in this country.

Randy February 13, 2008 at 10:37 am

Muirgeo,

Rules which are overwhelmingly agreed to promote stability. Rules with significant opposition promote instability. So go ahead and pass your rules. They will be your undoing. You will be forced to either create a police state, or learn to live with the fact that your laws have become suggestions.

muirgeo February 13, 2008 at 11:09 am

What does it say that there are no true classic liberal based societies in the world? What does it say that all the most successful societies of time our based on principles of democracy? What does it say that people who desire liberal society do not choose to vote?

For those who choose not to vote I think your stance is like the idea that anarchy and communism work equally well if everyone was just as intelligent , hardworking and honest as me.

But the fact is the most people aren't as intelligent and hard working and honest as us. But still we are dependent on them for much that we need. And thus the need to vote and the need for democracy. Claiming or wishing or doing otherwise is a vote that human nature will change after hundreds of thousands of years of evolving.

diz February 13, 2008 at 11:59 am

I would vote if sufficiently inspired to make it seem worth it, but lately it just seems a pointless use of time.

My odds of affecting the outcome are minimal.

And even then, my preference of one outcome over the other is slight.

Some mayget an enormous feeling of satisfaction from voting, I do not.

I can spend the time better doing other things.

Even if my goal was to have influence over political outcomes, I think I could find a more productive way to do it than spending time waiting in line to vote.

That seems even more true for Professsor Boudreaux. I think he'd have more influence spending two hours writing a good letter or essay to sway multiple others to his position than casting an inconsequential vote.

Nick February 13, 2008 at 12:00 pm

"Actually Nick, there was a better system (not perfect but a far better one then what you have today) and that system was the one our founding fathers put in place and which lasted until the civil war."

What does it say about this "better" system that it lead to civil war? If it was "better", why was it unable to withstand the forces that brought us to what we have today?

Randy February 13, 2008 at 12:43 pm

Muirgeo,

"Claiming or wishing or doing otherwise is a vote that human nature will change after hundreds of thousands of years of evolving."

Actually, that's pretty much why I don't vote. Because I don't expect human nature to change, and therefore don't see how it would be worth any of my time to try to change it.

Hugo Chavez February 13, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Don't blame me, I voted for Hugo Chavez.

Chris Blanchard February 13, 2008 at 2:11 pm

I agree with Don that voting doesn't matter – it's just one member of the establishment or the other. Where I disagree is that not voting is a message – it isn't.

Marketers know full well to market their goods and services to people who are buying their wares, not those who aren't. I don't care what a non-customer thinks of my product, he's not buying, so who cares?

Same with your non-vote. Don't think that John McCain or anyone else is going to get a messaage from someone who isn't carrying the only currency he cares about – the vote. If you are not casting it, he doesn't care.

Randy February 13, 2008 at 2:43 pm

The thing is, Chris, that nobody cares about my vote. They don't even put an option for my vote in the machine.

Randy February 13, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Just a thought, but wouldn't it be great if we could vote for issues rather than people. Say for example, if I could just go register a vote for "decrease spending by 5%". Because I don't really give a crap who holds the office. What I want is for whoever is in office to do as I would do if I were in office. This wouldn't have to change the idea of voting for people. All the party faithful could get together and decide who gets to handle the money for the next few years. But it would also give everyone else a practical reason to vote.

Eric February 13, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Randy —

Alas! Everyone would go to the voting both and pull the levers for, "give me more stuff" and for "lower my taxes". (Which is very similar to today's program.)

http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss5.html

Randy February 13, 2008 at 3:48 pm

True, unless it was a radio button – only one option could be chosen. Either option would then prompt the user to prioritize the programs to be cut or expanded.

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