Are you planning to vote today? Yes? Okay then, I have a little thought experiment for you.
Imagine the outcome of today's election once the votes have been tallied.
Now imagine the result if you decide at the last minute not to vote after all.
I didn't think so. So why vote? Is there any point?
That's a good question, and there are at least four distinct answers.
Vote No Matter What. This is the position of civic do-gooders everywhere. It's the view of those who think civic engagement, even in a minimal sense that usually lasts but a few short minutes once a year, is its own reward and intrinsically worthwhile, no matter the outcome of the vote. This is the impulse behind compulsory voting laws and various schemes to pay people to vote, as well as the Rock the Vote campaign and similar initiatives.
All of these efforts assume that pulling the lever for someone/anyone is preferable to not pulling any lever at all. For some, an active citizenry is automatically better than an apathetic one. For others, voting is an importantly "expressive" act of citizenship. These are intangible goods, but they may well be real. Let's just say that they're real for those who feel that they're real; if you perceive them, then you already have all the reason you need to vote.
Vote Because It Will Make a Difference. This is the position of ideologues, activists, partisans, and populists across the political spectrum, who hold that the only thing standing in the way of electoral outcomes they favor is an insufficient number of people exercising the franchise. "If only this or that crucial bloc of voters would just get off their butts and vote their preferences, all would be well."
The left, in particular, favors this argument, because it helps to explain why elections in the United States so infrequently yield results that reflect what the left just knows, in its bones, the American people must truly want — which is a genuinely progressive government. There is actually some evidence to back up this conviction: Poor people vote at much lower rates than the wealthy, and the political preferences of the poor skew left. So getting more poor people to vote just might make a difference. In sum, if you're committed to an agenda you have reason to believe will be advanced by voting, then casting a ballot is a no-brainer.
Vote Only If You're Informed. Would you allow any random person on the street to perform an operation on you? Of course not. But then why is it a good thing for everyone, including the ill-informed, to participate in a vote that decides who will hold political power and what policies the government will enact? It may be practically (and constitutionally) impossible to limit the franchise to informed citizens, but for those classical liberals and old-fashioned conservatives who place intelligence (or prudence) higher than equality in the ranking of political virtues, the optimal outcome of any election would be one in which those too apathetic to learn about the candidates and issues simply stay home, allowing those who are better informed to have a greater say in political decisions. If you're an informed citizen, you may have a duty to vote; if you're not, then you might be obligated not to.
Don't Vote At All, You Idiot. I give you Russell Brand, political philosopher: "I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites." Or as the old line has it, "Don't vote; it'll only encourage them."
This position appeals to would-be radicals and anarchists, like Brand, who want to scrap the whole political system, including its electoral rules. But it also grows out of the perfectly reasonable analysis with which I opened this column: for any particular voter, voting almost never makes a difference. This is especially true in national elections, but it also holds in state-level and House-district-level contests. The only time an individual's vote is likely to matter is in the smallest elections you can imagine: a few dozen votes cast for a local municipal assembly or school board. Aside from such elections, why bother?
Other than the rationales listed above, the most common response to such a question is to say something like: If everyone stopped voting, our democracy would cease to function! That's true. But my personal decision not to vote won't have any measurable impact on other people's voting decisions. There needs to be a positive reason for me, personally, to vote. Why should I make the effort when it will almost certainly make no notable difference to the outcome at all?
The first step in sketching a response is to acknowledge that our representatives in Washington don't and can't really represent our personal policy preferences, interests, and worldview. How could they, when each of the 435 men and women in the House represents, on average, 700,000 people who often have little in common beyond living in relative proximity to each other, in gerrymandered congressional districts? In all but the least populous states, the Senate is even less representative, with the presidency being the least representative office of all.
What, then, are our would-be elected officials doing when they run for office?
They're standing up to say, "Vote for me and I will do x, y, and z." The electorate then congeals into two pools — Yay or Nay — and the bigger pool wins, giving the victor the mandate to do what he or she promised to do, until the next election.
Voting, on this model, is a decision to dissolve yourself into one of these pools — serving as a single drop that contributes in a microscopic, barely perceptible, almost never decisive way to giving collective assent to — or expressing collective displeasure with — a particular candidate.
That's what we have: voting as mass politics. Inspiring? Nope. Essential? Nah. Worth a few minutes once a year or so?
Sure, I guess.