On the Irrational Nature of Voting

My vote doesn’t count.

Well, there was this one time that a group of us were trying to decide whether to go ballroom dancing at Melody Lane or country-western dancing at the Longhorn Saloon.  We took a vote, and by a margin of one, we went country-western dancing.  Had I voted the other way, we would have gone to Melody Lane.

That sort of thing aside, when it comes to voting as part of one’s civic duty, the closest I ever came to having my vote count was when I sat on a jury.  As we all know, the vote has to be unanimous in a criminal trial, so one holdout can make the difference between either a conviction or an acquittal on the one hand and a hung jury on the other.  As a matter of fact, the jury I was on was indeed hung, resulting in a mistrial, with two people holding out for a guilty verdict.  Had I changed my vote, it would still have been a hung jury, with three people voting guilty.  Alternatively, had I managed to shirk my civic duty, someone else would have taken my place, and the result would have been the same either way, except for one consideration.  On a jury, one does not merely vote:  one also exercises one’s powers of persuasion, such as they are.  It is conceivable that the person that might have taken my place would have argued more persuasively, resulting in either a conviction or an acquittal.

If one still lives in a state where caucuses are held rather than primaries, the element of voting and persuasion are also intermingled.  In fact, just the feature of standing up and being counted all by itself can be of no small significance.  And therein lies a tale.  In 1984, I decided to vote for the first time in my life.  As a democrat, I naturally attended the democratic caucus.  Once there we divided into three groups:  one for Walter Mondale, another for Gary Hart, and a third for Jesse Jackson.  Those of us who were for Hart went into a room separate from the others to select two delegates to attend the citywide convention.  A couple of party regulars spoke to each other in hushed tones, after which one of them, who was also the precinct judge, made an announcement.  As we were in the Montrose area, also known for being the part of Houston in which there was a significant gay community, they decided that there would be one gay delegate and one straight delegate, the former to be selected by the gays; the latter, by those that were straight. The precinct judge had not previously come out of the closet (the other party regular was straight), but out he came, with great difficulty, he admitted.  After all, sodomy was still illegal in Texas at that time, so there was not the general acceptance of homosexuality back then as there is now, Montrose area or no Montrose area.  He then asked all the straight people to go the right side of the room and all the gays to go to the left.  As a heterosexual, I cannot speak for the feelings of those in the room that were gay, but it occurred to me that whereas the precinct judge had had time to think over his decision to come out publicly that night, there were doubtless some there who were caught completely unprepared, not sure whether to come out likewise or to go to the right and play it straight.  Needless to say, for some in that room, the act of voting, as it were, had consequences well beyond the delegate they might have picked that evening.

When it comes to the general election on the other hand, voting is done in secret.  And the elements of persuasion and voting are kept distinct by law.  Whatever persuading one does must take place prior to going to the polls or just outside the place where voting occurs.  Psychologically speaking, those that make the greatest effort to persuade are those most likely to vote.  But from a logical point of view, the two are distinct and may occur independently of each other.  It is not unheard of for someone to attend rallies and protests, owing to the excitement and camaraderie of it all, but decide on voting day not to bother, owing to having slept late or wanting to avoid the inclement weather.  Meanwhile, another citizen, having pretty much kept to his own knitting during the campaign season, may get up and vote without anyone even being aware that he has done so.

I suppose that by voting you may inspire others to do likewise, but to that end you could simply lie, announcing at work that you had already voted that morning, thus also giving yourself an excuse for having shown up a little late on account of having overslept.  Others might then be inspired to vote by your example, false though it may be.  Or, if you work with a bunch of republicans, you might vote and then lie about it, saying you are not going to vote because it’s not worth the effort, hoping to depress their turnout, especially since they will not feel the need to cancel your vote.

And thus, having isolated the vote in the general election from extraneous considerations—taking a public stand, persuading, setting an example—we may now turn to the question as to whether that vote counts, whether it makes a difference.  And as I indicated in the first line of this essay, my answer, regarding my own vote, is decidedly in the negative.  Of course, it is a little too easy for me to say that.  Texas is a winner-take-all state that always goes republican.  And it is so thoroughly gerrymandered that even the congressional districts present one with a fait accompli.  I suppose I might feel different if I lived in a swing state, but not much.  Even if I had lived in one of those troublesome counties in Florida in the 2000 election, my vote for Al Gore, when added to the rest, would still not have been enough to make him president.

At this point, there will be those that argue, “If everyone felt the way you do, no one would vote.”  True enough, but the Prisoner’s Dilemma proves again and again that one is better off (or at least no worse off) by defecting.  Some will prefer a weaker version:  “It’s because of people like you that republicans keep getting elected.”  (Republicans are less reflective than us democrats, you see, and they will go to the polls and vote undeterred by such philosophical ruminations.)  All that may be true, but everyone does not feel that way, and my voting per se will not increase the turnout of other democrats.  Immanuel Kant took that basic idea behind the argument, “If everyone felt the way you do…,” and made it the cornerstone of his ethics.  I cannot consistently will my not voting into a universal law because then there would be no election.  Actually, there is no contradiction.  As others have pointed out, if I will my action to be a universal law, all we get is a world no one would want to live in.

But enough of that.  Let us grant that we all do have a civic duty to vote and that willfully choosing not to vote is immoral.  There still remains the irksome question as to whether it makes any difference.  Much of what we call “immoral” harms others in some way.  But the fact remains that if I don’t vote, it is more likely that I would win the lottery without even buying a lottery ticket than that my vote will count in the general election.  So even if my not voting is immoral, it is harmless.  I doubt if I will go to Hell for that.

I noted above that republicans are more likely to vote than democrats, if only because they are not as likely to bog themselves down with idle reflections that their votes do not count, at least when considered individually (that their votes count collectively is beyond question).  But this year may prove different.  A lot of republicans cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump, and yet they say that they are even more opposed to the idea of voting for Hillary.  And so, some will stay home and not vote at all, some will simply leave the vote for president blank, some will vote for some other candidate listed on the ballot, and some will simply write in a name.

Now, we all know that owing to the electoral college, only Trump or Hillary will be elected president.  So, by not voting for Trump, whatever their alternative vote or non-vote may be, they are helping to elect Hillary.  Implicitly, then, they prefer Hillary to Trump.  So, is there any rational basis for them to vote for someone other than Hillary?  No.  But then, neither is there a rational basis for voting at all, inasmuch as one’s vote does not count, individually considered.

I will be voting for Hillary (Groan!).  I know my vote will not make a difference politically, but I am going to do it anyway.  I suppose I will do it because it will make me feel good. Republicans that vote for neither Trump nor Hillary are no better or worse than I am in this regard, for their action will simply make them feel good.  Whoever is president, they will be able to say to themselves, “At least I didn’t vote for her (or him).”  I wish there were more to voting than that, the mere production in myself of a feeling of rightness, but no matter how I try, reason will not get me there.

It did get me to the Longhorn Saloon, however.

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