Why vote?

It’s midterm election day tomorrow in the US, and recently I have been trying to convince people to vote.

I wrote up a blog post and letter that we emailed to teachers on CodeHS, as well as created a lesson to help give people some basic information on voting. It shows people how to register to vote for the first time, and gives some resources on learning about voting, computing, election security, and data on voter turnout. The message from us has been that voting and civic engagement go hand in hand with digital citizenship. We’ve also given the day off as a holiday to our company.

But more broadly, why vote at all? There are many people who won’t vote, don’t care to vote, and couldn’t be bothered. I know people who have tried to construct rational arguments for why it doesn’t make sense to vote. Here I’ll try to give some reasons why you should vote.

“My vote doesn’t make a difference”

Here’s a common thing people may say as a justification for not voting. They comment that their individual vote doesn’t make a difference. If the election is decided by more than one vote, then their vote wouldn’t have mattered. Or if they live in a place that commonly votes one way or the other, then their vote wouldn’t have mattered.

This entirely misses the point of voting. Voting is not an individual thing, it’s a collective thing. The point isn’t that one vote makes a difference, it’s that all the votes together do make a difference.

The largest voting bloc is the people who don’t vote

Voter turnout in the 2016 election was 55% (source, source) — and is way below other OECD countries. That means almost half of the country isn’t voting — in major elections. Voter turnout in midterm elections is 36% (source, source), which means almost two third of the country is not voting! Take the presidential elections. The non-voting group is 45%, while in 2016 26% of the potential voters voted Democratic and 25% voted Republican (source). This means the size of the non-voting group is almost 2 times the size of the voters in any major party!

This is not a nitpick or small difference. What this means is even the smallest minority of non-voters has the power to sway the election. If the non-voters voted, they would entirely decide the outcome of an election. The idea that your vote doesn’t matter is a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you don’t vote it certainly won’t count.

Especially considering the margins are so small, with about a 50/50 split, we don’t actually know how the nonvoters would vote but if they voted it would be much more representative.

The results of elections actually matter

While you may not care to vote, voting determines the candidates and policies and results of elections and those results impact you. Different things affect different people in different ways, but votes directly lead to, for example, the way our health care system works (not well). Or the way our education system is funded (also not well). Or why tax policies or foreign policies or immigration policies are the way they are. It may be the case that you don’t care about any of these policies, but it’s very unlikely there are no policies that impact you.

Many policies have life-altering consequences for millions of people in the country we live in. So if you don’t care to vote for yourself, you can vote to advocate for policies that help other people — that’s not a bad reason to vote.

The categorical imperative for voting

Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the idea of the categorical imperative — a framework for thinking about morality.

An action would be immoral if when generalized, it would be in conflict with itself. Or alternatively, an action — if everyone did it, would lead to an absurd situation. Two examples given are lying and stealing. If everyone lied, then no one could believe anything anyone said!

Here is a way it is often described:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

It is clear that when looked at through this framework of the categorical imperative, that a person should vote, and not voting would be a bad way to go.

Say one person didn’t want to vote. That doesn’t seem to present a systemic problem. But say you generalized that to everyone: What if everyone decided not to vote? Well, if everyone decided not to vote, then there wouldn’t be any democratic system. So then the idea is that not voting is not something you could justify as a universal rule.

But I don’t think you need Kant or the categorical imperative to see that. If you don’t vote, sure that’s fine. But what if everyone took the same line of reasoning you did? Then the elections would be meaningless. Could everyone take the approach that you are taking?

Voting is important to a functioning democracy

Voting is central to a functioning democracy. There are lots of places with obviously non-functional democracies, or places with other authoritarian forms of government. A key part of the system is having people participate in the democratic process. But a lot of disillusionment has caused many people to opt out of the process entirely. However, many of those people could affect and influence the process if they chose to vote.

Back to the argument that an individual vote doesn’t make a difference. Well, people can organize in groups, and as collective groups those votes actually do make a difference and choose policies and candidates. There are many strong areas where people who vote in groups do wield significant electoral power.

If you were to look at another country and hear a description of their voting process you could make your own judgement of how “healthy” the democracy was. Let’s say you have a democracy where 90% of the people vote — that sounds pretty good. What if you have a democracy where only 30% of the people vote? That doesn’t sound very functional. However, that’s pretty much the state of the US midterm elections.

If you don’t vote, well then the results are certainly being decided by other people. You should vote because then you are helping the functioning of the democratic process, which as it stands in the US, is on quite shaky ground at the moment and needs all the help it can get.

In summary

There’s a lot more reasons to vote. But it only takes about 30 minutes and has a big impact. If you don’t care to vote for yourself, vote for other people. If you’d like to see things be different, vote in the way that moves things the direction you want. And I’d challenge you — if you think that you shouldn’t vote because your vote “doesn’t matter” — could everyone reasonably take the perspective you are taking? Maybe convince a few other non-voter friends of yours to vote and you actually could decide the results of an election.