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Free Minds & Free Markets

The Libertarian Case for Voting

Not voting could be worse

Voting is important. Tomorrow I'll be voting in my 39th consecutive election. When I vote for candidates, they rarely win. The ones that do have without exception disappointed. Many elections don't have any candidates I want to vote for. So I spoil my ballot.

There are a lot of shitty reasons to vote, and there's reason to think low-information voters can be dangerous. After all, winning candidates acquire real political power over all of us, not just those who vote—being a low-information voter is one of several great reasons not to vote. Trying to intimidate people into voting, as some groups around the country are doing this year, is ridiculous. Ultimately your vote matters very little. It's almost certainly never going to tip an election. Many elections (think 2012) don't really have a plausible conclusion that doesn't suck for the American people. Nevertheless voting is important, because in a democratic system the absence of a vote enforces the illusion of the consent of the governed.

Most people don't vote. The U.S. population is about 316 million. About 235 million are adults. 146 million are registered to vote, about 71 percent of those eligible. About 130 million Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election, nearly 66 million for President Obama. He received 51.1 percent of the vote, one of the worst showings of a winning presidential incumbent ever. But that represents just 32 percent of the eligible adult population. Almost all of the 49 percent of voting Americans who didn't vote for Obama voted for the Republican, Mitt Romney. That still leaves at least 78 million Americans eligible to vote who didn't vote for Obama or Romney, more than the vote total either major party candidate received.

It's impossible to say how many of those 78 million Americans, pressed to vote, would vote Democrat or Republican. Get out the vote efforts by Democrats, however hamfisted, suggest they believe they have an advantage in higher turnout. Millions of Americans, however, may never vote precisely because they don't like Democrats or Republicans. A lot of people don't know they're libertarians. A lot of libertarians don't believe in voting.

And not every Libertarian candidate will appeal to all libertarians. Certainly not every adult eligible to vote will have a candidate that matches up even imperfectly with their own views. There are other options—blank ballots, spoiled ballots, write-ins (usually). In some jurisdictions the write-in vote has been abolished. Usually this is accomplished through first round voting that includes more than one candidate per major party and a run-off limited to the top two. That set-up, along with other systematic way third party and independent candidates are excluded from the process, is made possible by enough non-voting. The presidential debates don't include third party voters because likely voters, who happen to be the likely viewers of a presidential debate, aren't particularly interested in them.

No one person's decision to purchase or not purchase an Apple phone over an Android phone will make or break Apple. No one person's decision to buy a smartphone, period, will affect the price of any phone on the market. Yet, in the aggregate, market participants set prices. Even the non-participants, those who decide not to buy, help set the price by not exerting more demand-side pressure. Politics is different, because it's forced. Free markets are supposed to be voluntary. It's how they are able to work, to self-regulate, how companies and consumers can match up in mutually beneficial ways. Not purchasing a smartphone deprives no one of anything but you of a smartphone.

In politics, on the other hand, not voting becomes part of the illusion of consent. After all, non-voters aren't starting insurgencies or calling for revolutions (unless they're selling books, maybe).

The consent required for government to exert more control over you is far less robust than, say, the consent demanded of college students in California, or, actually, in any other situation where consent is required.

Voting is a right, not a privilege. It's also not something you have to exercise. Not voting doesn't diminish anyone's credibility in criticizing the system, because voting doesn't ensure a specific result. But the regularity of not-voting helps promote the idea that the system is acceptable, just as much as the regularity of voting for the major parties does. Breaking that cycle can help break politics' control over us.

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  • Dances-with-Trolls||

    And trying to intimidate people into voting, as some groups around the ciuntry are doing, is ridiculous.

    One too many "i"s away from being a John-esque awesome typo.

  • RBS||

    Lights Ken Shultz Signal

  • Andrew S.||

    I'm currently trying to decide whom to write in against the as-always unopposed and completely odious Mario Diaz-Balart for Congress. Figure if I have to vote (only doing so to vote in favor of Amendment 2 (medical marijuana)), I may as well have some fun. Ponies seem too obvious. I used Disney characters in 2010. I don't just want to leave it blank.

    Maybe (in)famous Reasonoids. Warty for Congress?

  • Idle Hands||

    Like the house could contain his blazing passion. 2016 presidency or bust.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I have put down "None of the above".

  • Bardas Phocas||

    The Lizard People.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Grover Cleveland, Mickey Mouse, or George Washington.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Dr. Gregory House

  • Swiss Servator, spare a franc?||

    Zombie Calvin Coolidge

  • Catatafish||

    F.A. Hayek - Reanimator

  • Hayeksplosives||

    I approve.

  • Batgirl||

    Optimus Prime

  • SQRLSY One||

    Chairman Meow. My Cat! Apologies to the cat of the way-back-when girlfriend of P. J. O'Rourke...

  • SQRLSY One||

    Chairman Meow is ONE fine pussy, though, I MUST add that... VOTE for him!!!!

  • SQRLSY One||

    He just MIGHT give you "cat scratch fever", yes, I do admit that... But... Petting his pussy fur, can NOT be beat! It even lowers your blood pressure, science has shown as much. Please do NOT tell the FDA, or I am a gonna need a PRESCRIPTION to keep on petting "Chairman Meow"!

  • MJGreen||

    1) The state will do as it pleases regardless of my consent. My vote or non-vote is a meaningless datum. If I choose not to vote but speak loudly about why, my non-consent is articulated and shared. My vote or non-vote can be taken whatever way the observer wants to take it. See also politicians claiming a "mandate" to do this or that.

    2) Participating in the system suggests consent as well. It seems like a much, much stronger indication of consent than staying home. It can be argued that, by voting, you actively agreed to abide by the democratic state's will. The non-voter can claim he is not so bound. It's futile, but hey, he's on better ground than the voter.

  • Shirley Knott||

    +1

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    I was just explaining this to my mom yesterday. Nobody has my permission or consent. Nobody.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Well said.

  • Zeb||

    "If you don't vote you have no right to complain" is my least favorite reason people give why you have to vote. I'd say that if anything voting gives you less right to complain as you are giving some legitimacy to the election by voting. I don't buy that either. Neither voting nor non-voting means you consent to anything.

  • Uconndoug||

    Amen.

  • Johnimo||

    Amen. The only thing we consent to by voting is to have a person represent us in upholding the US Constitution.

  • Cytotoxic||

    It can be argued that, by voting, you actively agreed to abide by the democratic state's will.

    It can be argued but it's absolute nonsense and it's irrelevant. Your 'consent' doesn't matter; the non-voter can claim what he wants it's just more self-important preening. All that matters is your vote. It's not meaningless, it determines who gets power. Choosing never to vote is actually saying 'please fuck me there is no consequence for doing so'.

  • Warren_28||

    I agree with your comment Cytotoxic

  • kbolino||

    The proportion of people who vote is a piece of information just as the proportion of people who voted for a particular candidate is. The ignoring of low voter participation is a structural deficiency of our electoral process, just the same as the shitty way votes are counted and the lack of accountability in the process.

  • checkdempremises||

    Exactly. I enjoy explaining why I'm a conscientious objector when it comes to voting.

  • Tony||

    Agree with Cytotoxic. It's a mistake to think that voting is an exercise in vanity rather than part of civic participation. "I don't vote/voted for Nader! I'm gonna put it on my facebook so everyone can see how cool I am!" Yeah, not the point.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I vote only because I know politicians check if letter writers have voted. I figure it gives me a little more heft. Not much, not enough to actually matter, but more than non-voters who write letters to politicians.

  • wef||

    But the regularity of not-voting helps promote the idea that the system is acceptable, just as much as the regularity of voting for the major parties does.

    Thus, voting regularly for the minor parties helps promote the idea that the system is unacceptable - ?

    Maybe so, but this argument is some severe strain. Who are these open-minded but regime-supporting folks who would be persuaded into thinking the system is unacceptable if they saw minor parties - Greens, Socialist, Libertarians, Young Spartacus League, etc. - take an additional fraction of a fraction of a percent of the vote?

  • CE||

    They don't exist. But a third party getting 10 percent or 25 percent of the vote would give them major heartburn.

    Voting to avoid mistaking your non-vote as consent is a pretty weak reason.

    Voting to keep third party options on the ballot for when enough people get fed up and flock to one of them is a much better reason.

    It's also, to paraphrase an L. Neil Smith column from yesterday's Libertarian Enterprise, a chance to vote a straight FYTW ticket to the two ruling parties.

  • Catatafish||

    What if your only options are Red and Blue?

  • Johnimo||

    The Republicans SHOULD HAVE gotten the message when Ross Perot, with 19% of the vote, caused the election of W J Clinton. They're so brain dead that they keep nominating big government types. They were still basking in the glow of the Reagan era at the time and didn't realize the deep seated resentment of Bush Senior's breaking of his "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.

    Four years later they extended their blind indifference by nomination Bob Dole. This time Perot got over 8% of the vote and neither Dole nor Clinton received 50%, the latter of course winning a second term.

  • Robert||

    Exit polls say Perot's not running would've had no effect on the outcome between Clinton & Bush.

  • kbolino||

    Yeah, Perot wasn't exactly the small-government answer to Bush 41. He pulled votes "from both sides" as well as from uncommitteds.

  • Zeb||

    39 elections? That must be one per year unless Ed is a lot older than he looks.
    For some reason I always imagined him being younger.

  • Almanian!||

    He's counting PTO, office "Team Leader", school-board, and and Tiger Beat online polls, I believe.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Primaries.

  • Almanian!||

    After all, non-voters aren't starting insurgencies or calling for revolutions

    Not so sure about that. Not ENOUGH are calling for revolution, prolly. But I think it's more than "none".

  • Batgirl||

    I'm writing in the lizard people!

  • Riven||

    Have you read their foreign policy arguments? Terrible!

    Now, crab people, on the other hand...

  • Andrew S.||

    Yeah, but there was that time they took over earth after SCOTUS voted against free speech in Earth v. Zoidberg. Their first amendment activism is great, but their violations of the 13th Amendment just turned me off.

  • checkdempremises||

    You mean the double-whammy decision making polygamy legal?

  • anon99||

    US House and US Senate are the only offices on my ballot tomorrow. In both races the LP candidate has done a respectable job of standing up for the libertarian viewpoint. I'm voting in part out of appreciation for their effort. And also simply to register my dissent.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    I will vote. Always. As CE says above:

    But a third party getting 10 percent or 25 percent of the vote would give them major heartburn.

    When they see my vote, I'm telling them I'm willing to vote, but I'm not willing to vote for them. If there gets to be enough of us, they will eventually cater to us.

    Not voting tells them nothing, and therefore has the potential to change nothing.

  • Swiss Servator, spare a franc?||

    Yup, I love seeing the vote totals include "Libertarian".

  • ReeceExaminer||

  • Cytotoxic||

    I'm really glad a Reason staff wrote an article like this. It's very good.

    The notion that 'not voting' is going to affect any positive change is just dumb. I've never ever heard a proposed mechanism for how this takes place. And if it were true, local government-where turnouts are lowest-would be the least likely to violate your rights. Instead it's the most likely. 'Never voting' ensures greater control by special interests and does nothing whatsoever to reduce the legitimacy or power of government.

  • kbolino||

    Low voter participation has no consequences because it has no consequences. Voting and elections are entirely artificial processes so the consequences have to be built in. As it stands, there is only a consequence for not getting the most votes. You can be elected with 60% of the voters opposed to you as long as the opposition was split. That creates a perverse incentive all on its own, yet there is no penalty for being so useless and/or irrelevant that 90% of the population stayed home.

  • toolkien||

    The process of "voting" is strangled at the front end by the two parties pretty much crushing 3rd parties from participating, incumbents use their offices to buy votes for reelection beyond your puny singular vote to counter balance, and the whole process of election day is riddled with fraud and errors/omissions so that my one vote more than offset by mistakes. The whole process is eyewash. All voting will do is act as a registration for jury duty where I live. Getting sucked up into that process isn't worth getting on the grid to make some sort of quixotic statement against the machine.

    I've already accepted that we are headed for an economic, fiscal, and monetary melt down that can't be prevented. Along with that will come times hard enough that those who do vote will clamor for some sort of hard line to be installed, left or right matters little. My one vote, today, tomorrow, or five years from now is not going to prevent that. Again, I'll just have to spend a better of a week waiting to be selected or rejected for jury duty, assuming the judge doesn't cancel the docket for the day and I can just go. That's the tangible result of that behavior.

  • Lord at War||

    All voting will do is act as a registration for jury duty where I live.

    I've voted for 32 yrs- never even been called for jury duty. I would absolutely love to give some pin-headed prosecutor a verbal ass-whipping before being dismissed.

    Also, as Heinlein said(paraphrased), "Even if there's no one to vote for, there's always something or someone to vote against."

  • Product Placement||

    I've been called for jury one time for each election I voted in. Never had to be on a jury though as I had opinions.

  • Joe_in_Indiana||

    It is a right ONLY if you are a US Citizen.

    Voting in the US any other way is a felony.
    Voting multiple times in the same election also is a felony.

  • Product Placement||

    Vote early and vote often.

  • fredtyg||

    Ed wrote, "A lot of people don't know they're libertarians. A lot of libertarians don't believe in voting.".

    I've always felt it highly likely those that don't normally vote might well be libertarians, although they might not realize it. They're people living their lives and minding their own business. Not trying to take something from, or force something on, everyone else.

    I'm not saying they'd vote libertarian if they were forced to vote and still hadn't paid attention to the candidates and issues. But, if they did pay attention, it wouldn't surprise me if there was a much larger libertarian vote than most would expect.

  • wwhorton||

    When you get a tax lien on your paycheck, or try to buy a banned gun in your state, or anything else, nobody checks to see if you voted. You're not voting to register consent; the folks with the guns don't care whether you consent or not. That's what the guns, handcuffs, and prisons are for. Whether or not you vote you still have to live with the winners. Voting, however you choose to do so, is the one chance you have to register your disapproval on the state's own stationery. It's the difference between not walking across the stage to show your disdain for the system and using your time to flick off the administration.

    From the perspective of the people who count the votes, which is ultimately the one that matters, not voting because you're making a statement and not voting because you're too drunk to get to the polling station are indistinguishable. I'm not saying don't fight for the glorious libertarian/ancap revolution, I'm just saying vote AND stock up on ammo.

  • Erasmus vs. Luther||

    I've voted diligently for the past 16 years and consider it a civic duty. That being said, percentage of turnout shouldn't be the focus. The problem is that there's too many people who reflexively vote for a (D) or (R) for whatever reason. I think I'm being generous when I say(no facts to back it, up mind you) that half the public puts more thought into their daily outfit or what to do on the weekend than who they vote for. I have no solution to this aside from creating some sort of litmus test, which will never happen.....just doing some bitching.

  • Tony||

    Partisans tend to be more informed about the issues.

  • Rev-Match||

    Partisans tend to be more informed about the issues talking points.

  • Erasmus vs. Luther||

    Not true, at least based on my own anecdotal evidence/personal experiences. The most partisan people I know can't articulate their political party of choice's platform outside of the (usually) less than a handful of hot button issues that effect them emotionally.

  • Rhino||

    Partisans tend to be better at defending their own bias. Right or wrong.

  • Jim Smithy||

    Not voting tomorrow. Only thing on my ballot is a bunch of Ds and Rs. All the same failed policies and love for big government....contrary to what the Rs say.

  • Holgar||

    So write in. Even if it's "None of the above".

  • BerryG||

    Voting for a third party insures the democrats win again. It's that simple.

  • ||

    Voting for a third party insures exactly nothing. A single vote has almost never decided a significant election.

    The only thing a third part vote accomplishes is communication. "I don't like you! or you!"

  • kbolino||

    So maybe the rules are just a little bit fucked up, no?

  • Delius||

    I am a non-voter, but not because I am trying to make a point, or protest the two-party system, or whatever. I am a non-voter because in almost every case, there are no differences between the options as far as their ability to change the system. This isn't just a dig at Democrats and Republicans; I don't think a Libertarian representative would be able to effect change, either. The inertia of bureaucracy and the perverse incentives of those in power prevent it.

    So, I don't vote, because in every case I can think of, it doesn't make a lick of difference which person is actually in the office.

  • Product Placement||

    Gridlock is the best we can hope for as far as I am concerned. Always happier when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties.

  • Pinky||

    ... being a low-information voter is one of several great reasons not to vote.

    HEY!?

    Fuck you.

  • Bob Straub||

    I vote my conscience, but this year I did something else, too. For every unopposed candidate (most local offices, here in Central Washington), I wrote in "None of the Above," this from "Voters for None of the Above" at nota.net. ("Voted," past tense even though it's still Monday because WA votes entirely by mail/early drop-off. That's another whole subject.)

  • PL@pierrelemieux.com||

    "The absence of a vote enforces the illusion of the consent of the governed"? No. The absence of a vote is barely observable. In fact, given the errors in voting (think about recounts), it is invisible. There is a case for voting, but this is not it.

  • Atlatl||

    Tuesday midterms and by Wednesday the country improves dramaticaly

  • ||

    "Voting is a right, not a privilege."

    BZZZZZZZZ! NO, BUT THANKS FOR PLAYING!

    In fact there is no right to vote on the peaceful affairs of others without their consent!

  • MamaLiberty||

    Thank you John. The "will of the majority" is the most incidious and terrible tyranny in history. Those who keep you a slave "for your own good" are the most evil tyrants.

    Nothing in an individual's life is legitimately subject to any vote against his will.

  • Rob Lindeman||

  • MAind||

    This promising article is doomed by poor writing. The phrasing of the thesis -- "[V]oting is important, because in a democratic system the absence of a vote enforces the illusion of the consent of the governed" -- has all the grace of a sociology dissertation. How does one "enforce" an "illusion"? A run through Politics and the English Language (and some help from the editor) might have strengthened the argument and widened its appeal beyond the already-converted.

  • See.More||

    Most people don't vote. The U.S. population is about 316 million. About 235 million are adults. 146 million are registered to vote, about 71 percent of those eligible. About 130 million Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election, nearly 66 million for President Obama. He received 51.1 percent of the vote, one of the worst showings of a winning presidential incumbent ever. But that represents just 32 percent of the eligible adult population.

    This is a great breakdown that demonstrates that our process is not "democractic." Even allowing for Obama's 51.1% (of the votes) that only represents just over 16% of the eligible adult population selecting Dear Leader.

    Frankly, all eligible adults should be counted in the election process. If anyone does not vote, or leaves a blank for any particular race, those votes should be counted as votes against everyone ("Nays"). Candidates should be required to rally a majority of the "Yays", and not just the most votes, mind you, but an actual majority (51+% or better of all eligible votes) to win election.

  • Pargo||

    Serious arithmetic fail.
    Obama votes: 66 million
    registered voters: 146 million
    66/146 = 45%
    adults in the U.S.: 235 million
    66/235 = 28%

    Finally, exactly how would an election work if a candidate had to get a majority of all eligible voters in order to win. What happens when that doesn't occur? Do the incumbents just keep their positions?

  • See.More||

    Serious arithmetic fail.

    Fair, but 28% is still a far cry from a majority.

    Finally, exactly how would an election work if a candidate had to get a majority of all eligible voters in order to win. What happens when that doesn't occur? Do the incumbents just keep their positions?

    It's quite simple. Incumbent would be "voted out" (failing to get a majority approval means they got majority disapproval)... the seat goes unfilled... the ballot measure fails to pass... etcetera.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    The election process is one of the purest examples of how the collective ownership of a particular end leads to a tragedy of the commons. The individual cost of casting a ballot is low compared to the psychological satisfaction that most people receive, but the incentive to study the issues and candidates is even lower.

    The outcome of an election is an externality, as the individual has to bear the burden of everyone else's choices, and no one has to pay for the choice that he made. The voter gets all the illusory psychological satisfaction of his ballot, but only takes on a sliver of the cost of electing another demagogue.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    Plus, the more informed a libertarian is--like realizing that you're massively more likely to die on the way to or from the polls than for your vote to matter, that the psychological benefit of voting is the equivalent of a moth's joy in flying into a flame, and that you could've spent that time doing something genuinely productive--the more unlikely he is to vote.

    The result is that voters are on the whole naive and uninformed. Some polysci types like to pretend that the ignorati cancel each other out by treating LoFo votes like random events, leaving relatively informed voters to determine electoral outcomes, but Bryan Caplan wrecked that argument a few years ago when he demonstrated that some biases are nigh-universal. The result is that the electorate is dim and always prone to irrational populism.

    Unless you get a lot of pleasure from imagining that you're sticking it to this or that candidate (which you're not) or you hate the feeling of being a non-voter, you'd be better off spending an hour digging a hole in your yard and then another filling it in.

  • justsomeguy||

    When you voluntarily participate in a political election you have implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the political process, that the outcome should be observed, and that the consequences of such an outcome are acceptable.

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