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Why vote

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Why do people vote? The answer at first, seems obvious: to elect people to office with similar views. But this can’t be the only reason and probably not the most important reason. Voting for this reason makes no sense. Even close elections, such as Florida in the 2002 Presidential election, are still won by usually hundreds of votes. Your vote is virtually never decisive. If your goal is to influence the election, you’re going to be perennially, quadrennially disappointed. Your vote is almost certainly wasted. Adding one vote to your preferred candidate’s total is irrelevant. Better to take the time you would have spend voting and use it to do something for the good of the world or yourself or both.

But I vote anyway. I am not alone. Lots of people seem to find it rational to vote. I think people realize their vote isn’t going to be decisive. I think they vote for two other much more important reasons. The first is related to Kant’s categorical imperative [2]. When I tell people it’s a waste of time to vote because their vote is never going to be decisive, they always answer, “What if everyone else felt that way?” I assure them that no one else DOES feel that way. Or more accurately, that if they stay home, the same people who would have voted would vote anyway. No one’s going to be put off by you staying home. But the question of “What if everyone else stayed home” isn’t an empirical question. It’s a moral question. If no one voted, the system would fall apart. So I’m morally obligated to vote. It may not be worth it in the narrow sense of determining the outcome, but it’s the right thing to do.

The other reason people vote is to create a feeling of membership in a club they’d like to belong to. They vote for the same reason they wear a certain style of clothes, read certain books, go to certain kinds of restaurants. It’s an identity establisher.

Which brings me to Bruce Ackerman’s piece [3] in yesterday’s New York Times (rr). Ackerman argues that because Nader can’t win, he should designate the same slate of electors as Kerry. That way people can vote for Nader and still help Kerry win:

[Voters] will see a line on the ballot designating Ralph Nader’s electors. But if voters choose the Nader line, they won’t be wasting their ballot on a candidate with little chance of winning. Since Mr. Nader’s slate would be the same as Mr. Kerry’s, his voters would be providing additional support for the electors selected by the Democrats. If the Nader-Kerry total is a majority in any state, the victorious electors would be free to vote for Mr. Kerry.

Ackerman goes on to talk about how this is consistent with what the Founders had in mind. Maybe, but I sure doubt it’s what Ralph Nader has in mind. Ackerman assumes that Nader doesn’t want to be a spoiler. But I suspect that’s exactly what he wants to be. He’s running because he’s dissatisfied with Kerry. He’s running because he thinks Kerry’s too much like Bush. And Ackerman assumes that Nader voters are all Kerry voters who just want to give Ralph a bit of a thrill. But people who vote for third party candidates are often otherwise non-voters, people who dislike both major party candidates and want to join the club of being a Naderite or a Buchananite or a Perotista.

Finally, third party voters aren’t wasting their vote just because their candidate doesn’t win. They want to send a message. If anything, voting for a third party candidate is less of a waste than throwing your vote on a major party candidate. When you vote for a third party candidate, your contribution to the vote total is proportionately higher, you send a signal to the nearest major party candidate that you’re unhappy and you get to be a member of club you might actually be proud to be in.

More on voting from co-blogger Don is here [4].

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