The Mirage of the Ballot Box

Desert mirage
Lotto ticketHappy Ballot Box

It always saddens me when people who care about improving the world succumb to the many traps lying in wait to uselessly dissipate their energy. I remember arguing with a friend years ago about the e-mail petitions she kept forwarding. I tried to explain that nobody in power really cared about them, so they functioned as an easy release valve for the feelings of disempowerment created by our winner-take-all society.

The truth is that changing the world is very hard. Reality is a complex system and its not always clear what actions produce what results. And the world has enormous inertia. Change is often bad for those in charge - who have power and incentive to resist. Yet through long study, careful thought, and calculated action, the world can be changed.

Which is why it is such a tragedy to see people's energy sapped by the methods that don't work. I won't re-hash the excellent arguments about instrumental voting that have been made here today, but I will compare it to alternatives. As Radley Balko suggests, try a letter to the editor instead of voting. Or as Sean Lynch mentions in a comment, go spend a couple hours earning money, then donate it to a worthy cause.

These two kind of strategies are crucially different. As we can see from the success of lotteries, such small chances at huge gains are very attractive. Yet in the case of voting, that small chance is a mirage, so the only gain is the pleasure of association with the winner or having fought hard for the loser. Donating will never make a huge difference to the world, yet it will almost always make a small one. But many people would rather feel associated with a big event like an election than make a small but real contribution to change. Hence the powers-that-be are happy to provide options that satisfy this desire without truly weakening their position.

Now, please don't construe this as an argument that no one should vote. I voted via absentee ballot (to minimize time spent). But it was for fun, not activism. I had no illusions that anyone except me and perhaps a few friends cared what marks I made, or that I was sending any kind of message. Please consider your vote the same way. Don't let your little trip to the ballot box satisfy your desire to be empowered, to change the system, to make your voice heard. That's a mirage, and a dangerous one.

Instead, I offer you a Catallarchist Prayer:

Let reason grant us the serenity to ignore unrealistic paths, the courage to follow the few realistic ones, and the wisdom to know the difference.[1]

fn1. Based on the Serenity Prayer, of course.

Share this

[...] uals are quite

[...] uals are quite eloquent in their explanations for why they do not vote, as evidenced here, here, and here. Other individuals provide m [...]

Don't forget that there are

Don't forget that there are usually more races on the ballot than just president, though -- races which are likely to be far closer, for positions like sherriff, state legislator, and other such dull but important jobs with a lot of potential relevance to everyday life. Such races, moreover, are a vast reserve of clear-thinking amateurs and sensible non-political people. (Probably, as you've noted elsewhere, because local governments have lower switching costs than national ones, and thus have to be more connected to reality).

I vote because my town has interesting and even relevant local races. In such cases, going to the polling place, chatting up the sign-wavers to try to discern their candidates' positions, etc., may well be justified. I regard casting a presidential vote as little or no additional cost -- it's a freebie, because I'm already in the polling place to vote in the local races.

What that means is that national elections are free-riding on local ones for my vote, but I'm a big fan of free riders and don't particularly mind.

Well said, Patri. I was

Well said, Patri. I was thinking about posting something, but your post is so eloquent and expresses all my sentiments from both yesterday and today so well that I think maybe we can now put this voting thing to rest for the year.

The only thing I could possibly add is: let's see them try to get out the vote next time! Maybe now more people will work toward changing the world via means that might actually get them what they want.

Grant - if the cost is low

Grant - if the cost is low enough, voting in big elections seems like a fine thing to do. And you're right that your actions have more of a chance of making a difference in a local election - though it's still not much of a chance. Just understand that it's one of the least effective forms of activism.

Sean - thanks.