The Utility of Not Voting

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I’ve started listening to Penn’s Sunday School podcast on my way to work in the morning. I enjoyed his previous radio show, and I’m enjoying this one too. Recently, he had Bill Nye on the show. The topic of climate change came up, as you might expect with The Science Guy. Bill made the point that if you care about climate change, this upcoming election is really important. One party (which he did not name in the show, but I will: the Republicans) actively oppose responsible approaches to climate change and the other doesn’t so much. He went further to state that voting for a third party is just throwing your vote away.

Penn on the other hand advocates not voting at all. “The only way you can waste your vote is to vote.” Voting for the lesser of two evils just perpetuates the evil. It occurred to me that this doesn’t hold up even to Penn’s self-admittedly nutty standards of argument. A quick web search shows that for presidential elections, the US turnout has been only about 50-60% for the past fifty years. Splitting up the voters roughly evenly between the two major parties, we find that a plurality of voting-age Americans has taken Penn’s position for at least half a century.

And nothing has changed. There is no sign that the two evils have weakened any by this lack of participation by Penn and those who act like him.

I think it's fairly easy to see why. (Well, in all honesty, I should say that it’s easy to speculate why. If any of my poli-sci readers can point me to more rigorous studies, I’d love to read them.) Firmly removing yourself from the voting pool like this is not something that the two major parties are really concerned with. Sometimes, they like to help you out. In the game theoretic view of the election, a candidate really only needs to concern themselves with pleasing voters that can be persuaded to vote for them. Otherwise, they would prefer that you not vote at all or “throw your vote” away on a non-viable third party candidate to deny the viable competitor a vote.

Non-voters just become one less advertising dollar candidates have to spend and one less opinion they have to pay attention to. Non-voters are just helping them out and getting nothing in return.

And with that reminder, I now go submit my absentee ballot request. Thank you, Texas, for letting me send it by email.

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