Voting…Or Not

I preface this blog entry with the qualification that I am not a political expert in any way, shape or form (are you listening Holliann?). However, I do know how to structure sentences and do have an opinion…not to mention I pay WordPress $100 a year for this domain name…so read on!

The 2016 presidential election is still over 14 months away and the party nominations are beginning to heat up in a big way. It is around this time of year that I hear people discussing the candidates and for whom they will vote.  Oddly, it seems most of us have a feel for who we like and do not like–yet really have no real, legitimate “grounded” reasons why. I hear things like, “Trump seems like such an asshole,” or, “Hillary is a bitch,” or, “Bernie Sanders reminds me of my loving grandfather.”

Hardly astute political observations when deciding on who shall be the next “Leader of the Free World.” Or are they as good as any other observations? Stay with me here people. I have come full circle on my former harsh critiques of a superficial voting base. I suggest 3 basic unpopular options -well, kinda 4– for those of you considering voting in the next election…and please read on before you judge me too harshly and cast me as un-American. I do have my reasons.

1. Don’t vote.vote151

2. Vote for whoever makes you feel better about life.

3. Close your eyes, point down, and select the candidate at your fingertip.

We’ll get to number 4 later….

Yes, I’m dead serious.

First off, two of my favorite thinkers, economists Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt from Freakonomics, would tell you straight out that voting is the biggest waste of time a person can spend. In a New York Times article they wrote in 2005, they claim following:

 Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost — in time, effort, lost productivity — with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your “civic duty.” As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, “A rational individual should abstain from voting.”

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years — a 1910 race in Buffalo — was decided by a single vote. 

So, according to them, why do people vote? They provide 3 reasons:

1. Perhaps we are just not very bright and therefore wrongly believe that our votes will affect the outcome.

2. Perhaps we vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets. After all, your chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. From a financial perspective, playing the lottery is a bad investment. But it’s fun and relatively cheap: for the price of a ticket, you buy the right to fantasize how you’d spend the winnings – just like you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy.

3. Perhaps we have been socialized into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it’s a good thing for society if people vote, even if it’s not particularly good for the individual. And thus we feel guilty for not voting.

I once was of the strong opinion that not voting was better than casting an ignorant vote. However, for the following two reasons -my 2nd and 3rd options-I have changed my mind. Funny what a little research can do.

My second possible option concerning voting -vote for who makes you feel better about your life- is grounded in the following principle concerning the logistics of the presidency: The actual power of the president.

I believe that one of the most important considerations when considering presidential candidates is to understand the nature of the presidency and the actual power he or she possesses.

Bernadette Meyler, a Cornell Law Professor, breaks down presidential power into five general areas -that I can simplify here:  

1. Leader of the Armed Forces

2. Judicial and Cabinet Appointments

3. The Execution or Non-Execution of Laws

4. Power of Persuasion over Congress

5. Foreign Policy

Perhaps a sixth power, tangentially related to power #4 above, and arguably the greatest power a president may have, is that of the bully pulpit. Whether or not a president is for or against abortion, gay rights, immigration reform or tax increases/cuts –just to name a few issues– means very little insofar as the president alone is concerned. Our system of checks and balances does not allow for a dictatorship and these types of issues are the result of the judicial and legislative branches of government, in tandem with the executive branch. That said, the president has the power to wield a rather hefty sword of persuasion towards these, and other, entities –yet he or she can never vote or judge in their stead.

So how much power does the president really have?

I would argue that the president has far less power than most of us think. Conversely, I would also contend that supreme court justices have substantially far more power than we give them credit. The president may appoint justices, yet the  senate needs to approve them (too bad for Robert Bork….look it up kiddos). In terms of my gay friends who can now marry, Justice Anthony Kennedy has far more power than Barack Obama. In fact, President Obama does not have ANY power in this matter whatsoever –other than to use his powers of persuasion to attempt to shape public and political opinion.

So, Jimmy, what is the point?

The way our system functions, the president is far more a “purveyor of political perception” over a “perpetrator of power.” Yes, the president can declare war, appoint cabinet members, and free convicted felons, yet, none of these things are ever done in a vacuum nor without weighing the political consequences of making such decisions. If the president makes grave errors in any of these types of decisions, the president will politically pay dearly for it. This is why presidents wait until their term is nearly over to start pardoning their white collar buddies, among others, in prison –to avoid political fall out. Just hours before his final term in office, on January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton released 140 people from prison (this act was known in some circles as “pardongate”). To grant these pardons any sooner would have been political suicide and he would have had hell to pay.

So, yes, the president certainly wields a strong power of persuasion yet will not commit any acts that will result in his or her own political suicide. Hence, we potentially can have a wild presidential pit bull in office, yet due to political ambitions in the great majority of cases, the president is laced with a strong political sedative to behave in accordance with popular opinion –left wing or right wing be damned.

My opinion these days? Vote for whomever makes you feel better about your life and this country. It’s as good a criteria as any.

Finally, if either not voting or voting based on feeling does not work for you, I would recommend my third option: Randomly select anyone. There are strong reasons to support an ignorant voter base, many discussed here in Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Hochschild’s article, “If Democracies Need Informed Voters, How Can They Thrive While Expanding Enfranchisement?” In this article she states the following:

If everyone was passionately and knowledgeably engaged with the issues, the losing party would not grant legitimacy to electoral results or to controversial legislative or judicial decisions, and that would threaten the existence of the state itself. As Bernard Berelson and his colleagues put it, “the apathetic segment of America probably has helped to hold the system together and cushioned the shock of disagreement, adjustment, and change.”  After all, democratic participation is hard and often unrewarding work, especially if one invests time and energy in learning about electoral or policy choices; in this view, a democracy needs the apathetic ignorant to balance the passionate experts. 

My paraphrase of the above sentiment? We need a lot of people not to give a shit or else there might be civil war and/or anarchy. Sure Thomas Jefferson would disagree, though he did not live in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Reddit –not to mention Disneyland…all worthy competitors for our precious time, attention and resources. These things keep us in a politically flaccid and mind-numbing state. We need political apathy in this country and our survival depends on a majority of ignorant voters.

I find it quite laughable when I hear either the extreme right or extreme left claim they will leave the country if a certain candidate wins. No you won’t.  Shut up. (Although if Trump wins I certainly won’t go to Mexico because I’d probably never get back over that wall). The president just doesn’t change things all that much. Flee to France if you must, Johnny Depp, though if the president mattered that much, our country would never have survived the Jimmy Carter era.

Of course there is a 4th alternative…be passionate and spend copious amounts of time studying the candidates and issues. But that would require, as stated above, often hard and unrewarding work: Having to check facts and investigate political voting records can be a real bitch. Particularly when you consider your one vote has about as much chance for counting as winning the super lotto…10 times in a row.

Yep. That’s what I thought.

I told you all I am no political expert…just a blogger with an opinion. And for a $100 bucks a year, you better believe you are going to get it.