5 Common Misconceptions About Voting: Your Vote Doesn't Count


Living in the United States during a presidential election year means being bombarded by political campaign coverage on TV, radio, and Facebook. Sometimes listening to people talk about the election is just as bad. When you do, you can can almost guarantee that you will hear one of the following (incorrect) statements.

Here are the top five reasons people give for voting or not voting, and why they're all wrong.

1. "My vote doesn't matter in this state, because it'll go for (politician's name) for sure."

You are most likely to hear this statement made regarding the presidential election, and, to a lesser extent, gubernatorial races. The chances of your vote deciding an election in any state is less than 1 in 60 million. That is, we should expect a single person's vote decide a presidential election about once every 240 million years. You are substantially more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the poll. 

This statement is false for one simple reason: your vote in any large election, such as the presidential race, is always worth nothing.

2. "This is your chance to make your voice heard." 

What you do in the privacy of the voting booth will most likely never be known by anyone other than yourself. Whether you vote for a candidate, use a crayon to draw a picture, or eat the ballot, the outcome will be the same. You can tell people how you voted after the fact, but you could do that whether or not you actually voted. Voting in no way helps your voice to be heard, or contributes your ideas to policy-making. 

3. "If you don't vote, you can't complain about what happens for the next four years."

Au contraire. As George Carlin said (caution, link contains adult language), "If you vote and you elect dishonest, incompetent people into office who screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You caused the problem; you voted them in; you have no right to complain. I, on the other hand, who did not vote, who in fact did not even leave the house on election day, am in no way responsible for what these people have done, and have every right to complain about the mess you created, that I had nothing to do with."

The argument underlying the third statement is that by withholding your vote, you are failing to contribute to a high-quality candidate winning the election and therefore are culpable for the mistakes of whoever wins. But since it doesn't matter who you vote for, how can you be held responsible? Whether you choose the best or the worse candidate, the result would have always been the same. 

4. "It's your duty as an American. Don't you know how many people died so you could vote?"

This argument is generally employed by people who are better at math and realize that a single vote is essentially worthless. The suggestion is that because voting (or democratic governance) came at a high cost, and because the stakes are high in many elections, there is a moral duty to make sure the right candidate wins. 

This is a non-sequitur. If your vote matters, and it is important to pick the right candidate in an election, most people should not vote. Educating yourself to the extent that you are sufficiently informed to make decisions about complex issues — by proxy of selecting a representative  is extremely time-consuming and, in terms of opportunity cost, very expensive. Due to this, most voters do not invest the time necessary to make an informed decision, and instead vote based upon what makes them feel better about themselves, in a phenomenon called rational ignorance

If voters are rationally ignorant, they're likely to make systematic errors when choosing representatives, leading to bad policies and bad outcomes. Under these circumstances, philosopher Jason Brennan has written that most people have an ethical duty to withhold their votes. If you've made the rational decision to spend time working, enjoying the company of others, or otherwise living your life at the expense keeping abreast of policy research, then it's likely you should not vote. 

5. Voting is how the "country decides" who will be president, or voting lets us know the "will of the people."

There are serious reasons to doubt that election results accurately reflect the 'will of the people,' if there is such a thing. First, and most obviously, most people don't vote for the winner. In 2008 Barack Obama received 52.9% of the popular vote, but those 69 million voters represented less than 23% of the United States' population, which is typical. Lyndon Johnson received the highest share of the popular vote since at least 1824 — 61.1% — but that accounted for even less of the total population.

There are also the more complex problems with voting as whole, most of which point to voting being a complete waste of time.