Good and Bad Arguments For and Against Voting

It is the lovely time of year that is the culmination of the American voting season, and with it comes the endless repetition of arguments about why you should vote, or why voting is pointless.  Some have merit, but many are at best very poorly justified.  I’m going to be taking a look at some of them as I come across them, and talk about why they are or aren’t any good.

First, we have these 5 Good Reasons Not to Vote from Bloomberg View, which is what spurred me to bother writing this.

1.  It doesn’t matter.

McArdle justifies this by the idea that because your single vote won’t make the difference in the election, the whole process is insignificant.  My problem with this argument usually stems from the fact that it seems to be directed as if it is only influencing a single individual.  Unlike personal advice in discussion with a single friend, your column is directed at an aggregate whole, an entire readership.  While any individual on their own may not make an influence, the aggregate behavior of the group as a whole being changed in its behavior distribution has profound effects.  There are good examples of how this functions in physical scenarios.  In most neurons, there are ion channels which open and close in a probabilistic manner.  Any given channel might be open at a given second 5% of the time, and any specific channel being open or closed doesn’t matter relative to the behavior of the cell.  But if you change the behavior of a group of channels, there is a rapidly increasing difference in influence from even small amounts of channels.  As more channels in an area are open for a larger amount of time, the likelihood that other channels nearby will be open can also increase correspondingly, and so on.  If a critical amount of channels are open a long enough time, it can result in the entire behavior of the cell changing.  And only the behavior of a small number of channels needs to be changed initially for a difference to be made.

Similarly, when voting your individual vote doesn’t change things a lot, but you voting can influence others to vote, who in turn influence even more people to vote, creating a strong effect from a single small increase.  The reason you vote is because by participating, you change the probabilities in your favor, to make your influence and impact greater, to push things towards a critical point of impact.  Arguments that you specifically aren’t the tipping point, so are unimportant are based on an assumption that you are a force that exists outside of an apart from society.

(McArdle adds additional arguments about your knowledge or whether you’re even needed, but these get brought up again in her later points, so I’ll address them there.)

2.  This paragraph isn’t very cohesive, it brings up several points that are only slightly related.  I’ll address them in order.

a.  You have no opinion on who to vote for, the decision is meaningless to you.

This is probably the most valid argument that is used, but one it is hard to believe exists for most people.  If there is truly no issue that is related to politics that you are interested in that will be addressed by the campaign, then yes, there is very little reason to participate.  You only serve to create additional noise in the system, and possibly dilute the influence of those who do have issues that matter.  The reason this argument is hard to trust however comes from the extremely wide influence though of politics in most fields of a person’s life.  With campaigns focusing on topics from equality for women, abortion, science funding, climate change, business taxes or tax breaks, property taxes for homeowners in an area, payroll taxes on working class citizens, payment for improving roadways or water systems, updating electrical grids, mandatory preschool, alternatives to oil and gas fuels, changing immigration policies, or nearly any other topic under the sun, the idea that none of these areas could impact your decision is hard to believe.  Its far more likely that you’re simply ignorant of what issues are at stack or could be influenced by your decision, which is a different argument in itself.

b.  It’ll send a false signal to candidates that you like them/ dislike the opponent! (Or another version, you make a point that you don’t care/ don’t agree with any by not voting.)

What isn’t being measured isn’t important. Or a similar version, what gets measured gets managed.  By not participating, you’re also not making a statement.  The only effect from not voting, is showing that you don’t care about being involved or changing things.  A lack of participation only indicates that you’re satisfied with how things are, and don’t care for them to change either way, and don’t care for anything being done.  Additionally, the idea that voting is a choice between the lesser of two evils, the endless repeated refrain that votes are often against a candidate, rather than for another, or that its a referendum on a politician that isn’t even up for the vote clearly show that votes aren’t just considered approval of a candidate and ALL of their policies (more on that in c.) Along with that, the purpose of voting is to push issues in one way or another, or give approval of candidates who act in your interests on a given point.  Claiming that something might be decided from your vote is insane, its about as crazy as claiming that someone might be elected is a horrible side effect.

c.  You don’t need to have an informed opinion on everything so you can go out and vote, do something else instead!

My counter to this point, is Yes, exactly, you don’t need to have an informed opinion on everything in order to vote.  Humans make value judgements constantly on what we consider more or less important, giving priority in decision making to those we consider more significant than others, or desire more.  You don’t have to have a perfect opinion on every issue to vote in order to push forward an opinion you care about more.  Additionally, you don’t have to make politics itself a hobby to have an informed opinion about other issues you wish to promote or discourage.  You don’t need to be an avid fan of blogging as a medium, its cultural significance, and its own subculture in order to make a blog about science promoting science.  Additionally, you don’t need to know everything about every race, care about all the nuances of all candidates immigration policies, the demographics of the legislative body and the committees involved, to choose a candidate based on what matters to you, i.e., their views and passion about promoting science funding and climate change regulation.  The same value judgements happen in all decisions you make, despite possible eventual bad outcomes that could happen instead.

d.  You’ll make more of an influence doing other activities like going to a movie or out to dinner.

If we’re considering the influence of voting to be so infinitesimally small that it isn’t worth doing, I have some bad news for you.  Unless you’re making a large purchase instead of voting, or otherwise moving a large amount of capital towards some purpose, your influence on the global economy, or any other market is probably MUCH less than even you’d have from voting.  The impact of a hundred thousand fast food meals is still only about a single campaign ad, or a small advertising campaign.  For how little you need to do, the impact on global markets from changing politicians has a far larger effect than most activities you could do during that (very short) time instead.

3.  You don’t think it’ll make a difference which candidate gets elected.

This is somewhat redundant from previous points, but I’ll state it again.  If you don’t think it’ll make a difference, you probably don’t know enough to have made that judgement.  If there truly is no influence, this is a fine reason not to do so. But its pretty likely there is at least one candidate that has some impact on a point you care about.

(On this point, there are dozens of resources for making it easy to figure out a candidates stance on dozens of issues are in a timely manner. The candidates own websites can often be sufficient, along with websites like or your favorite news sources often will have pieces on candidates and issues they think are important that are current.  The argument that its too hard to find out what is really going on isn’t accurate, its just an admission that you’re too lazy, or don’t want to risk looking foolish, to find out,)

4. You aren’t informed enough about the candidates or issues.

Hey this again, McArdle sure likes to repeat her points.  Yet again, you don’t need to be perfectly informed on everything to make a decision on the ones you care about, and its not hard to find information on many issues to make a reasonably good decision.  She adds on the fears about things not turning out the way you hope this time, which is a pretty shitty argument.  Sometimes things don’t go the way you want, shit happens, the world is complex and you can’t predict the future and know everything.  Its not a valid justification for inaction in almost any other life decision, why voting?

5.  None of the races you can vote in are competitive.

This is a particularly challenging point.  Unless you have a significant knock-on effect from voicing your opinion and pushing others to vote,  you might not be capable of overcoming a difference that is heavy enough.  If every candidate is secure in their position by enough votes, voting probably is just a waste of time (assuming you can ensure enough other people are still voting that it remains true.)  This is probably the best reason to not bother voting, but like with most arguments, it is dependant on there being enough people who bother anyways that you don’t need to.

McArdle’s piece isn’t the only one for sure, and its a bit disorganized.  It touches on some other topics though, which I’ll be addressing as they also appear frequently in publications, social media, or discussions on the topic.

The two party system is broken and I don’t want to support it!

It most certainly is, but as I mentioned above, abstaining totally is also not a statement against it.  In some races, there are third party candidates that are capable of being chosen instead, and in some cases, independent candidates actually succeed. If enough people who are dissatisfied with the two parties vote, third party candidates can sometimes succeed, and the more popular they get, the more influence they wield.

I don’t agree with any of the candidates available, and don’t want to support them!

In some places, it is possible to submit a write-in candidate instead.  Although unlikely that enough people pick the same write in candidate for that person to win, the important point is that you’re reducing the percentage approval for the existing candidates.  If levels of support for the ballot candidates is far too low, its much easier to remove them from power or force a new election.  In the event this isn’t an option for your area, spending the time to possibly support and effort to force a new election anyways could be very effective.

I’m not able to get to the polling place on time/ waits are too long.

If you can’t lobby your boss for the time to get to a polling place, and doing an absentee ballot is not an option nor early voting, you might be out of luck.  Keeping yourself in a job and personally healthy and stable can be more important than your vote.

Its too dangerous to go out and vote/ I receive too much harassment to be able to vote.

Thankfully, violence at polling places in the united states is very rare.  However, that doesn’t mean you won’t get harassed.  Unfortunately for women and minorities, you could be often harassed by polling place workers, especially in states that passed overly aggressive voter ID laws.  Long wait times could also give you ample opportunity to be harassed by other people in public for a variety of reasons, which for the sake of your health you might wish to avoid.  If you have a medical condition that is too severe, you might still be unable to vote.  Yet again, keeping yourself intact and healthy is often more important still.  If possible, you can still do absentee or early voting, to avoid many of these issues if your state allows it.

I don’t think the democratic system works/ politics is too broken to matter.

Go hang out in a place where politics really doesn’t matter for a while.  A few years in Russia, mainland china, Venezuela, or any other dictatorship in the world for a while might change your mind.  As with many things, Churchill still has it right. We’re stuck with democracy until we can find something that is actually better.  This doesn’t mean that any given system of democracy can’t be improved, but any other system of rule is worse, so you need to work within democracy to improve it.

The campaign for you to stop voting isn’t the only side that is filled with terrible arguments.  Idiocy and poor logic is a human right, and its one that is exercised everywhere.  Lets take a look at some of the reasons why people insist that you SHOULD go vote.

We’ve always done it!

Four thousand years of recorded human history have shown that tradition is a very poor reason to maintain a behavior.  Humans have changed almost every aspect of how we live our lives over time, in ways most people would agree are for the better.  Those that we haven’t (wearing clothes, using tools, using fire, cooking food, rejecting murder,) we maintain because they have clear and obvious benefits over the alternatives.  Similarly, you shouldn’t vote just because its what you’re used to.  If there is a better alternative out there, do that instead.  But on the same side, don’t do it just because its different. Do it because its actually better.

Its your duty to do so.

At least in the united states, you are not required to participate in voting.  While your right to vote is encoded in law as a citizen, there is no requirement for voting to be a citizen.  Additionally, forcing people to vote can actually be a punishable offense.  Your right is to make the decision for yourself, not to be forced into participation.

Because people have died to secure your right to vote!

Many soldiers have died in defense of our country, or in defense of others.  Many have died not because they felt the cause was important, but because they were drafted into service, or they were required to protect their own lives.  Others died through mismanagement, or friendly fire, or were even executed by their own country.  Certainly many soldiers gave up their lives so that you had the right to choose.  But most soldiers have died in wars to defend the freedoms of others, and their rights to choose.  And integral to these rights, is that it is a choice.  Soldiers didn’t die so you’d be forced to vote, or vote for any specific candidate or issue which you do not wish to, or participate in a system you don’t agree with.  They fought so that you’d be protected despite your choices.  Additionally, many, many people have died for causes that we would argue are unjust, abhorrent, or even evil.  The deaths of those who believe in an idea, do not consecrate the idea as holy and good, nor do they act as a justification for those ideas.  In many cases, it can be considered a tragic loss of life that was unnecessary.  Some ideas are worth dying for, but that doesn’t mean they can remain so.  The system of today, is not the same system that the revolution and civil war were fought for.

Because its important to have your voices heard.

This is pretty much just the argument that its a democracy, so you should participate in democracy.  Voting isn’t the only way to participate thankfully, but its a very key portion of the process, and for most citizens has more of an impact than likely any other task they can do.  For a democracy to exist as such, it needs to take into account the wishes of the people.  If you don’t participate and make your needs known, you aren’t addressed, and your needs aren’t taken notice of.

Related: Because decisions are made by the people that show up.

You can’t have things change the way you like, if you aren’t involved at all.  You need to show up and participate, to push towards any changes or decisions you want to pass.  These two are both contingent on the idea that you wish to be involved in democracy and the decision making process.  Many people don’t want to have that burden or that responsibility, they’d much prefer to simply react to what others decide for them.  If you don’t wish to participate or make decisions, thats what you get to decide.

Because everyone else does.

Like tradition, this fails the same test.  Popularity or conformity are not any more reliable metrics for how good or desirable an action is than tradition.  If this is the only reason you have, it might not be worth doing.

Related: Because my (party/boss/parents/spouse/significant other/ voices in my head) told me to.

If there is no better argument than because I told you so, you should probably not get involved.  Its likely only going to be for the benefit of the person trying to force you, and not your own.  Additionally, you cannot be forced into voting in the united states, and being forced by someone could be an actionable offense in the united states.

Because I want to change X/ Influence Y Issues.

This is probably the only good reason to participate.  In democratic elections, your have some ability to influence the behavior of the state on a range of topics and issues, and voting usually takes only a small time commitment.  If there are issues you care about that can be influenced by voting, you should probably do so.  There are not many things most people can do that are more significant, and there are very few times where voting would stop you from participating and influencing events in other ways.

Because there’s nothing better to do.

This can go two ways.  If they’re saying that you might as well go vote, because you have nothing else to do, and that’s why its valuable, then its a very poor defense of voting.  If voting is only important when you have literally nothing else to bother with, its probably not important.  Alternatively, if they’re saying that voting is the literal most important thing you can do, they’re likely not really thinking about what options you have.  If you’re a doctor, manning the emergency room might be far more important than your vote.  So could acting as a policeman or fireman, or EMT, or ensuring that flights remain functioning properly for a large airport, or dozens of other high risk tasks.  However, these have the same caveat.  There are often many ways of voting early, or voting absentee instead.  Additionally, there are very few things that can be done only during the time when voting is happening, and take up the entire time that would be spent by voting.  About the only task that voting is entirely exclusive with, is not voting.  There are usually ways that you can instead do both, instead of one or the other.

There are many, many arguments for and against voting, most of which fall into these categories.  Most of them are very poor, with the only real standout reasons being because there’s an issue or topic that you want to influence, and its usually possible to find at least one issue you care about that it is important for.  That being said, its entirely possible that you don’t want to have the responsibility or position of influencing any decisions or events, in which case it is your choice to not vote, and you are not forced into behaving otherwise.

I’ve probably missed a few examples, if you can provide any that don’t fit well into the categories above, I’ll gladly add them.

You should probably go vote too.