Not Voting For is Not Voting Against

The United States of America is in the midst of the most dumbfounding election in a lifetime, and perhaps in its 240-year history. Its two major party candidates garner historically high unfavorable ratings and generate a constant stream of controversy, even within their own camps. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, despite his endorsement, continue to raise the issues of Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, her dishonesty and unethical behavior of Secretary of State, and the party’s actively working against Sanders in the primary. Similarly, conservatives in the Republican party harbor deep concerns about Donald Trump’s temperament, economic isolationism, flip-flopping on social issues, personal life, authoritarian nationalism, and much more.

Principled citizens on both sides of the aisle would prefer not to vote for either candidate, but continually hear about the supposed evils of not voting for either party. To engage fully in this debate would perhaps take an entire semester of discussion; however, there is one argument within the debate that should be debunked, or at least modified somewhat. Advocates of major-party voting often say something like “Not voting for Candidate X is the same as voting for Candidate Y.” The thought behind this is understandable, but there are at least three reasons why it is false, and those who would stump for Trump or Clinton should refine their arguments to their wary counterparts if they wish to pull them in for their candidate.

  1. Not voting and voting are not mathematically equivalent.

Consider the case of a society with three voters and two candidates, Candidate X and Candidate Y. Each of the voters can vote for either of the two candidates or abstain from the vote. Whichever candidate receives the most votes wins, and in the case of a tie the election is decided by a coin flip. Now suppose that Voter 1 supports Candidate X unequivocally, and Voter 2 supports Candidate Y just as surely, so that Voter 3 has the swing vote.

Voter 3 is faced with three choices. If he votes for Candidate X, Candidate X’s chances of winning are 100%. If he votes for Candidate Y, Candidate Y’s chances of winning are 100%. But if he abstains from the vote, then each candidate has the same chance of winning at 50%. So the “abstain” vote is mathematically distinct from an actual vote cast for either of the candidates. Abstaining from the vote is a better scenario for Candidate Y’s chances than voting for Candidate X, but it is not the same scenario as an actual vote for Candidate Y.

Voting in the context of the presidential election works the exact same way: not voting for one candidate certainly helps the other candidate or candidates, but it does not help them as much as an actual vote for them. Abstaining from the vote or voting for a third party is really more like a half-vote, or splitting the difference between the two real contenders. This is analogous to how baseball standings work: if the Reds and Braves are tied and the Reds lose, the Reds fall 0.5 games back, all else equal. It is only if the Braves win a game that the Reds fall a full game back in the standings. Losing a vote is not the same as losing a vote to the other side.

The obvious objection must be raised at this point. “But why does this distinction matter? Sure, you may not be helping the other side as much, but you’re still helping them. If you don’t do everything you can to help the less bad candidate win, you’re wasting your vote.” This objection is valid, and should be dealt with. The argument can be made that if one is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that one candidate is better for the long-run health of the country than the other, then the vote should go to that candidate. However, many people do not feel this way in this election. For instance, it is the feeling of many conservatives that while Hillary will be bad for certain, there’s no way to know if Trump will be okay or the worst disaster imaginable.

Trump is an extremely risky asset in many people’s minds. You would never put all of your money into a risky new stock, even if its return was likely to be higher than a boring, consistently lower-performing asset. You would split your investments: some in the risky asset, some in the boring one. For those who have concerns about the riskiness of one candidate over another, for whatever reason, the rational decision might be to “diversify” their vote between the two candidates, even if one was likely to be less preferable than the other. People may still argue about whether the candidates are risky enough to act in this way, but the option to strategically abstain should not be written off categorically.

2. A vote can be a signal.

Of course, the main purpose of a vote is as a mechanism to elect the preferred candidate for the citizens of the country. However, votes do not exist in a vacuum; they are not completely secret. While your vote is secret in the sense that it is anonymous, it is not secret in the sense that everyone sees that someone voted for that candidate. A vote can be used to signal to the winners of the elections, as well as to everyone in the nation, that there are people in the country who oppose significant portions of both leading platforms and who are willing to cast a non-winning vote to make their voices heard.

The objection to the signalling aspect of voting is that polling already performs the job of signalling. This is true. A number of great polling agencies exist in the US, and give accurate signals about the state of opinions in the nation. Good polling, however, does not mean that the signalling aspect of voting is worthless. Even the best polls rarely match with election results; it is impossible to perfectly identify who the voters actually are. The ballot itself is the only poll that is guaranteed to be filled out exclusively by voters, presumably those citizens which care the most about political outcomes. In extreme circumstances like this election cycle, it is valid for people to feel that their vote carries the most weight as a signal of dissent, designed to let the next president know that he or she has work to do to win over the American people.

3. You can probably ignore points 1 and 2.

The hard truth of voting for many Americans is that a single vote, on the margin, probably doesn’t matter. This does not mean that you shouldn’t vote, of course, because votes add up to significant results; however, the chances that your vote is significant is extremely small. In a heavily blue or red state, there is zero chance that your decision to vote for a major party or a third party will make a difference, and in a battleground state the odds are only slightly higher. Whether you fall in line with the party or whether you dissent, the effect on the outcome of the election and the effect on the signal of the election is essentially nothing.

Why point this out? This is where personal convictions come into play. Several schools of thought exist about the ethics and morals surrounding the voting process. The utilitarian view is that it is immoral not to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” even if you have real issues with that person. The “vote your conscience” take the other view, which is that you should vote for whoever best matches your personal views, regardless of their chances of winning. Others take the middle road: vote strategically for a major party, up until the point at which your conscience is explicitly violated. Many Americans are likely in such a place in this election; they typically vote D or R, but are worried about explicitly pushing the button for either Trump or Clinton. The near-zero effect of a vote can be of guidance to these people: perhaps it is not worth it to actually pull the trigger for a candidate who violates a person’s standards in too many ways, just to cast a likely meaningless vote. The value of a clear conscience should not be overlooked.

All this, of course, is not a comprehensive argument against voting for either of the two major party candidates, nor is it designed to be. These issues are difficult, and merit as much nuance and understanding as we can muster when debating them. Many people will still believe it is best to vote for Trump or Clinton rather than a third party, and they have strong points. But the argument that a third-party or write-in vote is a vote for the other candidate is not one of those strong points. The debate should not be centered around destroying the concept of third-party voting itself, but on the merits of the candidates. Potential third-party voters want to be convinced that voting for a candidate is the best option they have to resolve the competing forces of election outcomes, signalling, and conscience. These forces will be different in everyone, and so intelligent people will make different decisions. People who disagree must attempt to respectfully debate and persuade instead of beating each other over the head with insults and threats of the apocalypse.