The last time I voted was in 2002. And once again, after careful thought, I decided to sit this one out. There are lots of good reasons to vote. But there are also good reasons not to vote. They deserve to be taken seriously.
One reason not to vote is math. Average voter turnout for a midterm is about 200,000 in my district, Virginia’s 8th. I have one vote. So the odds of my vote being decisive border on zero.
My district is also bright blue, usually voting about 70-30 Democratic. So if I vote Democratic, I’m not affecting the outcome. I’m adding to the pile. If I vote Republican, it’s not like that would change the outcome, either.
This year is different, and closer than usual. The incumbent congressman, Democrat Jim Moran, is polling below 50 percent. That is usually a sign of danger for an incumbent. If I am going to vote, it will usually be against the incumbent, regardless of party. So that’s one inducement to vote.
The trouble is that barely a quarter of my district’s voters have even heard of Moran’s Republican opponent, Patrick Murray. His polling is actually five points higher than his name recognition, but that only gets him to the low 30s — nearly 15 points behind the incumbent. Moran is widely expected to win an eleventhterm, despite his high negatives.
The math makes a pretty cut and dry case for not voting, but that’s not the whole story. A lot of people do the math, and vote anyway. That’s because voting is a way for them to express themselves. People value participating in democracy. They value having their say, exercising their rights.
Expressive voting is perfectly legitimate. It’s a value judgment. And values are subjective. There’s no right or wrong answer to how much value to place on expression. Different people have different answers. But the higher your value, the more likely you are to vote.
Most years, my value on expressive voting is pretty low. After all, I already make my living expressing my opinions on policy issues.
That leads us to the economist’s argument: voting takes time. I can spend that time voting. Or I can spend that time writing an article for publication. I have one vote, and no effect on the outcome. But hundreds of people read my blog posts. Thousands of people will read an op-ed in an outside publication. Spending 20 minutes voting instead of writing actually decreases my impact.
Of course, a close election would raise the value of a vote relative to an article. And that’s something I have to calculate every year. But usually I’d rather write than vote. If I want to actually impact policy, writing is usually a more effective use of my time than voting.
Some libertarians have another reason not to vote. They say voting legitimizes the current system. This is not a serious argument. As Dan Mitchell put it, “Does anyone actually think that the corrupt crowd in Washington will suddenly stop stealing our money and trying to control our lives if fewer people decide to vote? I don’t think it would have the slightest impact on their behavior.”
Dan, who did vote this year, is right. In order to change the system, one must engage it, not ignore it. For some people, that means voting. For others, it doesn’t. All I ask is that you weigh the pros and cons before you decide what to do. I have no official stance on whether or not to vote. Nor do I have a stance on who you should vote for. What’s right for me may not be right for others.
What I do have a stance on is that the populist do-gooders who insist that voting is everyone’s civic duty, and who look down on non-voters, are not intellectually serious. Whether or not to vote is an individual decision people need to make for themselves.
This non-voter does not look down on people who do vote. All I ask is the same courtesy in return; too often that is found lacking.
Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.