From the Desk of a Political Scientist (Part II): “You’re Voting Wrong”

Tom Knecht

Associate Professor of Political Science

Westmont College

January 2016

Telling folks they’re voting wrong often invites a punch in the face. Far be it from me to tell you which candidate to vote for; that’s your business. But even at the risk of a broken nose, I’m willing to bet you’re voting wrong. The problem isn’t the candidate you vote for—Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Lyndon LaRouche—but rather your unstated assumption before you make your choice. Whether we articulate it or not, we all have an underlying philosophy of voting and elections that determines whether we vote and whom we vote for. If you’re like most Americans, you probably think of elections as a selection process in which you use your individual vote to help bring about a desired outcome. This seemingly reasonable definition of voting and elections is spectacularly wrong.

If you think you’re participating in a selection process when you vote, you implicitly believe your single ballot can affect the outcome of an election. It can’t. Consider that a single vote matters in a selection process in only two scenarios: (1) if the vote creates a tie; and (2) if the vote breaks a tie. All other votes simply pile onto an outcome that would have occurred with or without you. In any decently sized election (above the level of city council), the probability that your vote will decide the election approximates zero. Unconvinced? Imagine what would have happened if you didn’t vote—or did vote—in the 2012 election. Would anything have changed? In fact, go back through any national election in your lifetime and see if a single vote would have been decisive. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning on your way to the polling booth than of creating or breaking a tie with your vote.

The tendency of Americans to view elections as a selection process has many consequences, but I will focus on two. First, it perpetuates the two-party system in America. The French political scientist Maurice Duverger noted that winner-take-all electoral systems like ours in the U.S. tend to produce two viable political parties. That’s because people who like a minor party candidate usually end up casting a strategic vote for someone else. To illustrate strategic voting, consider Jane, a hypothetical voter who really likes the Green Party. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Jane reasoned that (a) although she is a big fan of Green Party candidate Jill Stein; (b) she thinks Stein has no chance of winning the election; (c) Jane doesn’t want to “waste” a vote on a hopeless cause; therefore, (d) Jane casts her ballot for the least objectionable major party candidate, Democrat Barack Obama. Most erstwhile third-party voters behave like Jane, so voter psychology tightens the grip of Democrats and Republicans on American politics.

As a second consequence of viewing elections as a selection process, our participation in politics is variable. We’re simply more likely to vote when we think doing so might affect the outcome of an election. For example, voting turnout tends to be higher in presidential battleground states like Ohio (65 percent in 2012), Florida (63 percent), and Colorado (70 percent) and lower in non-competitive states like Texas (50 percent) or California (55 percent). And more people vote in elections expected to be close (55 percent nationwide in 1992) than in likely blowouts (49 percent in 1996). Perhaps most troubling of all is the individual variation in voting behavior that follows this line of thinking. The American National Election Study, a large survey taken every presidential election year, asked Americans whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: “So many other people vote in the national elections that it doesn't matter much to me whether I vote or not.” In 2000, only 32 percent of the people who agreed with the statement bothered to vote, while 84 percent of those who disagreed found their way to the polls. Unfortunately, voting only when it “matters” means that a large number of Americans don’t vote.

Shouldn’t a political scientist be encouraging people to vote rather than pointing out the insignificance of voters? Yes, and I hope to do that by promoting an alternative to the selection process philosophy of voting. The expressive model contends that we have a civic duty to vote. It reminds us that other Americans have fought and died for our right to vote. The expressive model also sees voting as our chance to register our opinion with government and to suggest a future course if we don’t like the current one. In short, this view demands that we vote because we ought to vote.

Here is the punch line: If voting is an act of expression rather than a selection, then voters should never cast a strategic ballot for a second-favored candidate or abstain from voting. To cast a strategic ballot means, in essence, that voters are lying about their true political preference, which is an odd thing to do when expressing a preference is really the only logical reason to vote. Simply put, you should vote for whomever you like because your single vote is not going to decide an election. Moreover, the expressive view of voting means that you always have an obligation to vote. It doesn’t matter whether or not the next election promises to be razor close or an absolute blowout, you are a Democrat living in Idaho or a Republican in Vermont, or you like Jeb Bush or Gary Johnson. You should always vote, and you should always vote sincerely. In the expressive model, voting is a constant and is honest; in the selection model, voting is a variable and somewhat dishonest.

For the record, I think we should all vote. However, I also think that we should be clear about why we’re voting and what we expect to get out of the act. I believe voting is an important act of expression, perhaps the most important, and one that requires citizens to give their time and opinion for the greater good. Our vote matters a lot. But I don’t believe I can decide the next election any more than I believe I can win the next Powerball Lottery. So the next time you’re in the ballot box, take a page from Charles Wright’s funky 1970 hit and “Express Yourself.”

TOM KNECHT is an associate professor of political science at Westmont College

Next article: “On the Nature of Natural Selection" by Amanda M. Sparkman