Does Your Vote Count?

In every election season, you hear people say their vote “doesn’t count” because they live in a solid red or blue state where the winner is already certain. Many will even offer this as a reason for not voting: “What does it matter? The [Democrat/Republican] always wins here anyway.” They often deliver this wisdom in weary, jaded tones, as though they’ve come by their cynicism the hard way.

The implication is that if they were in a swing state, where the election was more competitive, their vote would stand a better chance of making a difference, and they’d be more motivated to make it to the polls.

A corollary to this mistaken logic is to point to particularly close results, like Florida in 2000, as “proof that every vote counts.” Actually, they prove exactly the opposite. The official final result in Florida was 2,912,790 to 2,912,253, a difference of about five hundred votes. A single voter staying home, or even fifty or a hundred of them, would have made no difference to the outcome. Even at the epicenter of one of the closest elections in history, the odds against your vote “counting” would have been overwhelming. If you insist on measuring the value of your vote by the likelihood that it will influence the final result, then your vote effectively doesn’t count anywhere.

It’s technically true that it counts less in non-swing states — orders of magnitude less, in fact — but we’re talking about comparing two incredibly small numbers. If you would really be more likely to vote in Ohio than Georgia because your vote had, say, a 0.00001% chance of swinging the election rather than a 0% chance, then I’d say there’s something wrong with your priorities in general. You should be voting out of a sense of civic duty, individual pride, or some other factor that doesn’t vary according to where you live. It shouldn’t require a suspension of disbelief in which you pretend that your individual vote literally matters to the outcome.

In fact, that “suspension of disbelief” model (“what if everyone thought that way?”) is usually an overly simplistic way to understand collective action problems in general. It’s better applied to situations where there are no external moral values at stake, like the “paradox of thrift” in economics. In contrast, voting should be seen as a matter of principle, not strategy or utility calculations.

Admittedly, as I discussed in my post on the Electoral College, the collective impotence of swing voters in non-swing states is a major issue that affects both elections and governance from top to bottom. But this doesn’t mean that an individual voter in a non-swing state is facing a materially different set of incentives from one in a swing state.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out exactly what people mean when they talk like this. In many cases it’s a way of complaining about some element of the overall system — the electoral college, the two-party model, etc. — and they don’t literally mean that it will influence their voting behavior. In other cases, it’s just a convenient excuse for people who wouldn’t bother to vote anyway.

But I suspect there are some people who have really decided not to vote because their state isn’t in contention. If you’re one of them, I hope you’ll reconsider. There may be valid reasons to sit out an election, but this isn’t one of them.