How Your Vote Does and Doesn’t Matter

You’ve heard the old paradoxical aphorism: “The next thing I tell you will be a lie. The last thing I told you was true.” This is kind of like that: Your vote for president doesn’t matter, unless enough people think it doesn’t.

During this exhaustingly psychotic simulation of a democratic electoral season, people are twisting themselves into the usual angst-ridden contortions about whether, how, and why to vote for president. “Every vote counts,” exhort Hillary Clinton supporters. “Your vote can send the Democratic Party a message,” insist Jill Stein supporters.[1]

In a strictly logical sense, both of those arguments are not just false, but obviously, almost offensively false.

Neither your vote nor mine will decide the presidential election. Remember Florida 2000? The presidential election equivalent of a coin’s being flipped off the roof of a skyscraper and landing on its edge? No one voter’s switch from Nader to Gore, or even Bush to Gore, would have come remotely close to changing the result of that election. Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. One is less than 537.

At the same time, your vote for a minor party candidate (say Jill Stein) will express to a major party (say the Democrats) absolutely nothing, even if we indulge the laughable assumption that the major party is paying attention. How can the Democratic Party know how many Stein voters would vote for a Democratic candidate in different circumstances, let alone know what those circumstances might be? The Supreme Court has held that votes aren’t communicative at all. I strongly disagree with that; I think votes are expressive. I also think a scream is expressive, but that doesn’t make a scream an argument. It’s kind of like raw unemployment data. What we really want to know is how many people who aren’t working could be working and what policies could we adopt that would get x, y, or z number of people employed. Raw unemployment numbers, though, only tell us how many people aren’t working, just like Jill Stein’s vote totals will only tell us how many people voted for Jill Stein. Your vote can’t change that.

Everything I’ve said so far is hard to dispute, as long as each of us is operating in a vacuum. The complicating factor is that we aren’t. I expect this post to generate a readership in the high single digits, possibly including one or two people who aren’t even related to me. If, however, a lot of people read what I’ve written above, and if they somehow became convinced it was correct and worth internalizing, then my views on voting might approach a level of meaningful electoral or expressive influence. It’s not crazy to imagine that a persuasive blog post could shift 600 votes in a swing state, or even motivate enough protest voters away from a minor party candidate to change a major party’s perception of the candidate’s vote total. Ideas are viruses.

If you want to influence the presidential election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, you should volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. If you want to influence the Democratic Party to move left, you should protest and agitate, inside and/or outside the party, for progressive ideas and candidates. If you want to do either (or both) of those things and you have access to a large, persuadable audience, you should speak to that audience loudly and often.

But if like most people you’re just going to cast a vote, then do whatever the hell feels right, because your vote doesn’t matter. Unless you believe me.

[1] “Voting is a plot by the Illuminati,” drool Donald Trump supporters. “Who needs democracy if you have capitalism,” huff Gary Johnson supporters. Okay, not really. But probably.