Home > Action, Discourse, Politics > Complaining About Electoral Arithmetic

Complaining About Electoral Arithmetic

December 31, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Don’t blame us. We voted for the pizza party.”

Election day was last month, and along with it came the increasingly open conversation about voter nonparticipation. We once simply lamented low voter turnout rates in post-election headlines, for example, or sported bumper stickers proclaiming support for a losing candidate. Today, however, the discourse has become somewhat more robust. Interestingly, the emphasis seems to have shifted from concern over low turnout to a justification of nonparticipation. While those who perceive themselves as disenfranchised or marginalized have endorsed a nonparticipatory stance for some time, support for the non-voting view, more and more, is coming from academic elites. In short, despite their ostensibly increased and careful attention to political matters, at least some academics do not like to vote at any greater rate than the general public. Being academics, they naturally feel the urge to express their non-expressive approach in writing. Their rationales for not voting do not always rise to a greater level of sophistication or explication than those of their lay counterparts, however.

First, I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with abstention in a democratic system. While I prefer civic action to inaction, taking a stand rather than reserving judgment until some (likely imaginary) future date, I have always supported abstaining from ignorant voting. I think voters have a duty to become reasonably informed regarding the candidates and issues before them, and where voters have not done so, abstention is appropriate.

For some reason, though, attention recently turned to a critique of the colloquial phrase, “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” Professor Jason Brennan, here highlighted and endorsed by Professor Ilya Somin, contends that the no-voting, no-complaining position, in Somin’s words, “fails to consider the extremely low likelihood that your vote will actually have an effect on government policy.” Brennan continues:

The most obvious explanation is that if you don’t vote, you didn’t do something that could influence government in the way you want it to go. You didn’t put in even minimal effort into making a change. . . .

But voting isn’t like that! The problem is that individual votes don’t make any difference. On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates. Otherwise, the chances of breaking a tie or having any impact are vanishingly small.

Brennan’s position strikes me as a mathematical fallacy. As I see it, Brennan could be writing for two audiences, and his argument does not work for either one. If Brennan simply is writing for himself in order to justify his personal decision not to vote, his explanation– that he does not vote because his individual vote is extremely unlikely to “break[] a tie or hav[e] any impact”– relies on unknowable facts. Even granting the substantive premise that a vote only matters if it breaks a tie or has “any impact,” general election votes almost certainly are not counted in such a sequential manner such that any one vote could be said to have been the tie-breaking vote. By setting up criteria that, as a practical matter, never could be satisfied, Brennan guarantees his apparently desired outcome but does little else. (An examination of whether and when a vote ever matters is a subject for another post.)

More likely, Brennan is addressing his remarks to a broader audience comprised of the entire electorate. In that case, however, his argument makes even less sense. In essence, his position amounts to an assertion that, because any one person’s vote is unlikely to break a tie or “hav[e] any impact,” no one should vote. Obviously, if no one voted, elections would be meaningless voids of civic disengagement.

One has to assume that, if Brennan was setting out to attack a foundational pillar of democracy generally (i.e., elections), he would do so directly. I am not familiar with Brennan’s work outside of the context of this immediate discussion. It is possible that he believes that the United States should exchange its democratic system for another one that does not rely upon citizens expressing their public will through elections. If Brennan supports a government system that incorporates elections to some meaningful degree, however, his argument against voting makes little sense, whether applied to himself individually or the electorate at large.

Categories: Action, Discourse, Politics
  1. January 2, 2015 at 11:46 am

    One person adopting this defense of not voting is a voice in the wilderness. The real problem, which you touch on, has been bothering me for some time: This reflexive “what difference can I make” position is being adopted by larger and larger numbers of people, each thinking him or herself a maverick. I also believe that (anecdotally at least) people with a greater understanding of civics are more likely to abstain–how’s that for a paradox?–leaving our electorate increasingly made up of the most ignorant and/or single-issue voters.

  2. AD
    January 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Good points, Brent, and thanks for dropping by. Your first sentence frames part of the issue nicely: if a single vote is so inconsequential it probably isn’t worth casting, how much less consequential, on that view, is not voting at all?

    I share your anecdotal view of the paradox, and I suspect that those non-participating smart folks haven’t sufficiently grappled with the consequence you identify. Without claiming any great level of understanding for myself, I will add that sometimes I find that all I can do is sit quietly and listen to

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