Monday, November 03, 2008

Life in a Swing State

Pennsylvania could still, hypothetically, go either way tomorrow, and so the city is inundated with desperate pleas to go out and vote. (Since Pittsburgh is quite liberal, the subtext "... for Obama" is omnipresent.) It seems to be a little late in the game to be trying to swing swing voters, so that's probably not what they're trying to do, but even so, I can't imagine myself being convinced to vote one way or another by advertising. Is the Obama campaign going for the three-pronged attack? Or do they just have too much money?

And yet, voter turnout in America remains pathetic. 60% of the eligible population is nothing of which we should be proud. So why don't people vote?

The first reason is the simplest. The chance that the vote of an individual will affect the election at large is effectively zero. In a system that uses something as cockamamie as the electoral college, that chance drops even further. If your vote can't possibly effect any change in the outcome, why bother?

This is actually a very reasonable question, because on an individual level, the negligent voter is correct in that the outcome of the election will almost certainly be the same regardless of his actions. The answer, then, comes when the voter realizes that he is not simply an individual, but a manifestation of a greater public consciousness. (I know that doesn't actually mean anything - bear with me.) This is similar to the question of whether or not an individual is justified in jumping turnstiles to ride the subway. One miscreant won't break the system, but one can never consider a miscreant in isolation - anyone who jumps the turnstile must consider not just the effect of their individual action, but the total effect of all turnstile jumpers, which may very well be enough to break the system.

Elections are the same - your vote does not matter (accept it and move on) but a lot of votes put together do. A victory by 10,000 votes means that 10,000 people each decided that even though their individual vote doesn't matter, they'll still vote anyway, because what the hell, why not.

There's always the glib response that while you may not care enough to vote, the other guy who stands for everything that you despise certainly does, and don't you just want to show him who's boss, you grubby little citizen, you. Or consider the alternative - what if they had an election and nobody showed?

Actually, that would be pretty cool. Scratch that.

The other, more complex reason for not voting is that American ballots lack a "none of the above" option. Unfortunately, this means that a deliberate expression of abstention is indistinguishable from a deliberate expression of apathy (if such a thing is possible). There are several reasons for choosing "none of the above":

  • You're very moderate, and thus both candidates appeal to you equally
  • You're very radical, and thus both candidates disgust you equally
  • You're very apathetic, but you heard that sometimes polling places have cool stickers
  • You reject the basic premises on which democracy is founded.

    Voters #1 and #3 are separate issues in and of themselves. #2 can always go vote for a third-party candidate, a can of worms that will for now remain sealed and buried in a lead-lined bunker. Let's discuss #4.

    A common expression is that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain when things go to hell in a handbasket - the "Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos!" philosophy. The alternate perspective is that if two wolves and a sheep vote on who to eat for dinner, the sheep has no right to complain when the polls go south. He accepted the system by participating in it, and must abide by the outcome.

    Unfortunately, even if you don't vote, you still have to live with the outcome, so that argument doesn't hold water - the sheep still gets eaten, even if he deliberately abstains and protests the unfairness of the elections.

    Finally, some people just don't care about politics on any level. Fortunately, these people are the ones most likely to get screwed by the government, so this problem is ultimately self-correcting. I would go so far as to propose that those who don't care about the future of the government could be easily made to care, by (say) indefinite detention without charges, counsel, or habeas corpus.

    Alternately, voting could become a necessary condition of citizenship, but this is reminiscent of the mandatory attendance policy in my calculus class, otherwise known as "Naptime 21-259". You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think. Forcing people to vote is like drafting people into your military - if your citizens aren't willing to serve their country, you're doing it wrong.

    My father always liked to say, "The choice between bad and worse is always more important than the choice between good and bad." I don't know if it's actually true, but it sounds good, which is the next best thing.

    And really, I don't even care about this all that much. I'm just sick of all those damn flyers all over the goddamn place.

    The article I last promised has been bouncing around in my head with another dozen of its half-formed brethren. Who knows which one will emerge first?

    no wonder the sound has so much body



    Blogger olddockeller said...

    Of course, when I say something, I'm usually quoting Heinlein.

    What it all comes down to is, you should vote because you can, because it reminds the ones to whom we entrust our nuclear weapons that they actually do work for us, not themselves, because voting is the sacrament of our faith in democracy and that it really is all that separates us from the serfs.

    I'm glad your first election actually matters. Now get out there and vote.


    6:31 PM  

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