No, your vote doesn't make a difference

Why should you vote?

The standard reason is that you should vote to "make a difference." At face value, this suggests that you should vote to affect the outcome of the election.

But do you really believe that, were you not to vote, the outcome would be any different?

A recent study concluded that the odds that your vote would have "made a difference" in the 2008 election were about 1 in 60 million. In swing states, that number drops to 1 in 10 million. Perhaps you think those are good enough odds to justify paying attention to the election, educating yourself about the candidates, and making the trip to your local polling place. Personally, if the only reason to vote is to get someone elected, I think I'll stay home.

To be clear, I am not saying that your vote doesn't matter. What I'm saying is that, if it matters, it isn't because it affects the outcome of the election.

So I ask again: why should you vote? Why does your vote matter?

The answer that I favor is that you should vote in order to play your part in the democratic process. If democracy is to be successful, it requires widespread participation. To the extent that you believe in the democratic process, you believe that everyone ought to participate. So you should vote for the same sort of reason that you should keep your promises, tell the truth, and help those in need, even when you can get away with doing otherwise and even when it confers no benefit to yourself. You should vote because it's the right thing to do.

Supposing that you should vote for moral reasons, and not for self-interested reasons, a further question one might ask is: how should you vote?

This question is generally answered in one of two ways:

  1. Vote for the presidential candidate whose values and policies most reflect your own.

  2. Vote for the presidential candidate, of the candidates most likely to win, whose values and policies you find least objectionable.

The second answer, what  is sometimes called the lesser evil voting strategy (or LEV, for short), is typically supported on the grounds that your vote "makes a difference." Accordingly, you should cast it in the way that is likely to have the best consequences. 

This idea is defended by some very smart people. But since your vote doesn't have any likely consequences, it is difficult to know what to make of this kind of justification.

Another way to decide between moral rules, one that respects the idea that you should consider the likely consequences without implying that your vote literally "make a difference," is to consider what would happen if everyone were to follow them. The question then becomes: would it generally be a better world if everyone were to vote according to the first principle or the second principle? 

It's unclear how often the two principles would reach the same verdict. But I can think of at least two sorts of scenarios in which they wouldn't. The first scenario seems to support the LEV strategy. The second seems to support voting for the candidate whose values most reflect your own.

First scenario: Suppose that there is one candidate that a majority of the population dislikes and two candidates that are both liked by a majority. But, in voting for the candidates that best reflect their values, 45% of the votes go to the candidate that is most disliked, 40% goes to one of the two remaining candidates, and 15% goes to the last (I realize this is an oversimplification given the way that actual US presidential elections work, but, suffice it to say, an analogous scenario could play out through the electoral college at the state level). The most disliked candidate wins, a consequence that would have been avoided had people voted according to the LEV strategy.

Second scenario: Imagine that the mainstream, established parties have both chosen candidates that are despised by the majority of the population. And imagine that certain third-party or established independent candidates would be more desirable to the majority of the population. This suggests that you shouldn't decide who you're going to vote for on the basis of LEV reasoning months ahead of the election, especially given the effects of modern polling on the outcome of the election. 

Given the current state of the US voting system, there are probably scenarios in which the LEV strategy is justified. Even so, it’s hard to know when we’re actually in such scenarios, and LEV reasoning has the potential to do a lot of harm. It has the potential, in particular, to foster unquestioning support for established parties that represent the interests of the few rather than the many. 

After the mainstream parties finish their primaries and nominate their candidates, the third parties need to be given the chance to rally support and provide people with a legitimate alternative. By turning to LEV reasoning too soon, say, we acquiesce to the possibility that there will be no viable candidates that the majority of the population actually support.

My recommendation, then, is that we work to reform the voting system and, in the meantime, avoid appealing to the LEV strategy unless it's very clear that not doing so will lead to the election of a much worse candidate.