It's OK Not to Vote

Instead, you can do something that will actually make the world a better place. Which is basically anything else.



You're probably a good person, or at least you try to be. You want to do the right thing. But are you having trouble shaking the sense the you might have better things to do next Tuesday than voting?

Instead of trying to motivate yourself and others to do a thing that feels pointless, why not stop to consider the possibility it actually is pointless? And not in an "all of human endeavor is pointless" kind of way. In a highly specific way that can actually be dealt with productively.

First things first: Your vote is wildly, insanely, hugely unlikely to influence the outcome of an election. No presidential election has ever been decided by a single vote. Academic surveys of close elections have turned up one 1910 Buffalo contest that may have been a true single-vote victory, and that's in 100 years of congressional races. In four of the 10 closest congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898, further investigations and recounts nearly always unearthed margins significantly larger than what initially appeared in the official record. Your vote is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very unlikely to change the outcome of an election.

But what about the cascade effect, you ask? Won't my decision not to vote influence others, reducing voter turnout and thereby the legitimacy of our very form of government, hastening the demise of the American experiment?

Probably not! People are hard to convince. I'm not even convincing you right now! You're probably not going to vote anyway, and you're still not convinced by this post! That's OK. You're just making my point for me. Your actions are unlikely to influence others in this instance, so you should do what's right for you. (Alternately, you could skip voting and simply mislead others into thinking you did so. You can order a roll of "I Voted" stickers right now and have them in time for this Election Day and every single one thereafter.)

And listen, if you're in it for the warm fuzzies and the people-watching, that's fine. Maybe your own pleasure in the act of voting is the best you can do with your time to make the world a better place. That's OK. It's good to do things that make you happy! But for goodness' sake, stop looking askance at the stickerless.

We have parent-teacher conferences. (Why, D.C. Public Schools? Why!?) We have columns to write about the nature of civic virtue. We have a shift at the soup kitchen. We have one stamp and two envelopes to mail. We have weddings or funerals to attend. We have Kenyan cows to Kickstart. We have a vacation later this year. We have jury duty. We have to correct someone who is wrong on the internet. We have puppies to pet. We have burritos to microwave. Exactly 100 percent of the activities listed above will have more tangible benefit in the world than voting.

To be clear: If someone said to me, "KMW, you are the only voter in this election. What you decide will in fact determine the outcome of the election," then I would vote. I do not think the act of ballot casting is (necessarily) intrinsically bad for all humans. But neither is it intrinsically good.

If you do want to dig deeper on that intrinsic badness angle angle, may I suggest philosopher Jason Brennan's book on the topic? In 2012, I was raring to go on the idea that voting might in fact be immoral. But I've mellowed in my old age. I don't want to fight you about whether an uninformed vote may actually cause harm by incentivizing stupider party platforms and rhetoric. I don't want to squabble about whether believing the candidates or the system are ethically flawed or produce bad results makes voters complicit in the subsequent abuses by the powerful. I don't want to holler about how damaging the cliche "if you don't vote you can't complain" is to the fundamental tenets of free speech. (Hm. I guess I actually still do want to fight about those things.)

Bless this lineup of "young people" who explained to New York magazine why they are not voting. They seem to be the only ones in this crazy world who understand opportunity cost. The article has been shared a lot, and I suspect mostly in the service of vote-shaming and fostering generational warfare. I am in favor of both shame and generational warfare, but this is not the way to go about it. Because, to be honest, nearly each and every one of these 20-somethings is making solid points.

"The idea of leaving work, forwarding all of my calls to my phone, to go stand in line for four hours, to probably get called back to work before I even get halfway through the line, sounds terrible," says Maria, 26. She goes on to note that she cares deeply about certain issues, including immigration and reproductive rights, but rightly recognizes that standing in line to vote is not an efficient way to further those causes. And there's Thomas, 28, who says: "Over the years, I've started to think maybe we don't have to frame this so much as an individual act with these moral consequences and that I need to stop being so dramatic about it." Wise. And of course Tim, the hero of the forum who bravely proclaims: "I hate mailing stuff; it gives me anxiety."

So here's a simple a proposition: Instead of voting on Election Day, just do the things that actually benefit you, your family, your community, or the world. Instead of queuing up to enact a symbolic ritual with a vanishingly small chance of altering the course of events, take the time and money you would have spent voting—even if it's very little time and/or money—and do literally anything else as long as it has real-world impact. Including fighting with me on Twitter about this post, if you like.