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.

jimmysintension

11 Comments

  1. First of all, I always enjoy your pithy posts!!! For the most part, when addressing today’s Americans, this post was completely on point!! However, Americans today are not the people for whom democracy was designed. Aristotle posits that man is social and in order for man to be virtuous–to function with excellence–he must participate in politics. I think the issue of voting reaches far beyond “politics as usual,” and instead amounts to people not aspiring to become more fully human. The system is only broken because the people for whom the system was created are broken. Generally, people have replaced their sense of integrity with entitlement, and the human connection–that very thing which makes us social, rational beings–has been exchanged for efficiency.

    So what are we to do? I think it’s more sensible to not vote than it is to vote simply because it is our civic duty, as you perhaps suggest. More importantly, we ought at least try to revive the human connection and virtue from the lackluster skeleton of social media and preoccupation that it’s become. This sort of renaissance is not owed to our fellow Americans because of our civic duty, but it is owed by individuals to themselves in order to assist in the prospect of becoming more fully human.

    As far as the president not having much power, I think his/her most important job is to unite Americans. People listen to the president–because of the hopeless state of American democracy, we need a president who can help heal the people. If the people are healed and have a better sense of their potential as humans, democracy can work: parents would attend school board meetings, students would be interested in city politics and townhall meetings, etc. Individually, we could focus on the prospect of functioning more excellently, and together, we could participate in politics to make democracy work for us, especially at a local level.

    That’s my two pennies anyway 🙂

    • Mentioning you in the blog was my way of forcing you to respond Holli! 🙂 Thank you so much. I, for a moment, will argue against the cynical state of the human (American) condition you suggest. The “politics making you fully human” idea may work for those passionate about politics, yet for many others the “becoming fully human” path can be accomplished through connecting with others through many means…connecting through art, academics, religion, and on and on. Let us keep in mind that Aristotle was a misogynist dickhead who considered women to be misbegotten males. Does this weaken his stance on politics? Maybe, maybe not. Yet I will listen to Socrates…and Plato to a certain degree. But I digress…I believe the idea of politics making us fully human was when government was the central activity of most people in some way, shape or form. In today’s much larger, fragmented, and diverse world, there are a myriad of ways to connect to the larger whole and look outside yourself. Do I think that can change on a dime? Absolutely. But at this moment, people can be politically indifferent yet still fully human….I think. That is my buck and a half!!

  2. Interesting… First I believe only congress can declare war. As commander of the military the president can move troops around and start a war I suppose. Second HELL YES supreme court justices have more power than anyone, correct me if i am wrong but it’s almost impossible to change something once they rule on it.

    About voting…
    Some good stuff there however like most economists you have the wrong angle. Anyone who thinks their vote is a deciding vote is a moron and needs to stay at home anyway. Voting is not about winning like a lottery. When the lotto numbers are picked whoever has a ticket has a chance at winning some cash. When a vote is cast most voters (assuming candidates vote) will not have a personal gain like the lottery winner, people do not vote and hope their vote is picked to win something. The president has a lot of influence in the direction that things go, take Obama’s health care efforts. My 1 vote is a drop of rain in the bucket I know, but at the same time the other 62% of 300 million people who actually vote are also picking a bucket to add a drop. The goal is not to win the lottery.
    The goal should be to pick a person who you believe will make changes if needed or shed light on existing laws to improve life for you and your family. Bottom line is you want wants best for you and your family’s future. People have different ideas and opinions about the best way to go about doing that. One person says this will make life better while another says no that makes it worse and this makes it better. So the candidate who’s ideas and views you believe will make life better for your family. In a perfect world that will make life better for everyone’s family. So the Idea is that each vote add up to show how the majority of people feel, assuming they agree with the candidates. That person wins and hopefully the … 62% of 300…Say 60/40 split in votes…, hopefully the 112 million people that decide who the president is are right about the best way to make life better.
    Vote for the person who consistently says a lot of things you agree with. Not likely that you will agree with everything any person running for office says but hopefully one will have the same views on many subjects. HA HA a consistent politician i know, but some do exist.

    I ask do you want your vote to count, or will you let your neighbor pick for you? He strongly supports some one you think is a nut job and believes some crazy things. (compared to your views).

    All 7 billion of us share the same planet and we are still learning how to get along as a growing society, from the street level to the global level.
    (just wanted to put that one out there)

    • I am fine with having my neighbor pick for me….Todd is a good guy. 🙂 The thing about voting is that I could potentially vote for a candidate who was not the best choice. Yes, my vote could be an erroneous one. Perhaps an analogy (and I did not claim it to be a good analogy!) is like going out to eat, you are not sure what to order when you ask the server what they would suggest. The server has far more information on what is popular, who seems to like what food more, and how it is made. So I say, “whatever you suggest, I’ll take.” I feel somewhat the same way with the president….you go ahead and order for me. Thanks for your contribution Wes!

  3. Voting for President is hyped to be a “civic duty” but, as you point out, is pretty much just an exercise and waste of time. However, I do not believe voting in local and even Congressional elections to be such a waste. As you point out, the President has limited powers. Those powers are limited quite a bit by who is in control of the Congress as evidenced by the log jam in the functioning of government for the past seven years. Even though a single vote in Congressional elections still does not influence outcomes so much, it adds to a total that may give a significant majority to the winner. A perfect example, in my opinion, of single votes adding up to make a significant change in the outcome of an election is the victory of Ted Cruz in Texas over the “favorite” native son. Enough single votes resulted in putting this bull into the china closet of DC.

    • Agreed Don. The older I get the more interest I gain in local politics, where I CAN make a difference. Hell, if I vote for the wrong city dog catcher I could literally get bit…sometimes the seemingly small local stuff is what affects your life the very most.

  4. I only have one thing to bring to focus, I feel that 10% possibility of finding that one true love is enough for many people to try. Just for the fact that divorce happens does not mean that it has resulted in a bad thing as well. If you don’t make that 10% of happiness, you can still come out with amazing friends, family , and children. This alone I feel would make people never regret attempting a failed marriage. Do you agree?

    • It is a very good argument Brandon. The logic I use does suggest the either/or fallacy…as in you are either happy or not; or it either succeeds or fails. I like what you suggest and it does offer one hope for marriage and suggest seasons and degrees of happiness. So, yes, I do agree with one BIG however…I would suggest that the hurt and pain, in the great majority of divorces, might “trump” the potential happiness that may ensue. But, yes, I do like your point. I guess my bottom line is that I hold divorce is bad for the individual, family and society…perhaps I am thinking too theoretically that the problem can be solved. Perhaps there is something to be said for, “it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

  5. Hey Jimmy, I was reading your article and the thing that struck me the most was the part where you quote the New York Times Article from 2005 in which they basically say that voting is a waste of our life because our single vote is not enough to tip the scale in any particular direction.

    I can see the logic in that when your talking about the large number of people that do vote, sure what will your one vote do? Probably nothing. However, if everyone followed this logic and decided to stop voting, then even one single vote would be enough to turn the tides in the direction of a different candidate.

    I guess what I’m trying to point out is that in an election with many millions of people voting, it may not seem like your vote will do much. However, it is the same as if just two people were voting, each vote counts for 50% of the total pool, just now the amount of people is up-scaled and your vote only carries a significantly smaller weight something like 0.000001%, but it is still there regardless. Your vote DOES matter even if the effects are not seen they are still there.

  6. I believe that it is important to be an informed voter, there is too many dumb shits that are not we informed and then complain later. If you vote blindly you have no right to complain and can only blame yourself for the consequences.

    As for as why I vote, I vote because I am a proud American and i believe that my vote does matter and if you skip a vote and it was close than your vote could of mattered. as i stated above if you skip a vote you also loose your right to complain about the president and his policies.

    The president may not control all power as you stated but they do hold some power and if their policies do not line up with mine, I know that there will actions taken in a direction against my beliefs. I vote because I would not want to raise a family in any other country and i want to help my country succeed and be a place i am proud to be an active member of society.

    Haha However, if everyone actually voted the country would probably be much more democratic because everyone knows a proud Republican would not miss a vote that is for lazy Democrats

  7. It’s probably due to my inexperience and naivety, but I think its important that voters continue to exercise their right to vote. I understand that some people are turned off by the idea of voting since the United States is controlled by two parties, but by not voting for third parties, apathetic people are allowing our bi-partisan government to continue. Voting keeps our democratic government alive and allows “the apathetic segment of America [to continue to] help hold the system together and cushion the shock of disagreement, adjustment, and change.” These apathetic Americans are going to maintain our society as it transitions from a decent presidency to a potentially unknown terror. But I found it ridiculous when people around me told me that they didn’t vote because they don’t give a shit. If you give a shit about what your wipe your ass with, you can and probably do have an opinion about your government.
    Apathetic voters and citizens have every right to not vote, but they should respect the fact that they have the ability to do either. If you plan on living in the United States for awhile or for forever, then isn’t it important to have some say about what your federal, state, and local government are doing? Voting is not a difficult process and you do not have to vote for everything. Throughout this entire election, I have discussed with my co-workers and peers at Crafton about propositions. Many of them were quite passionate about certain ones and were already well-informed about the topic, but still didn’t want to vote. I am just baffled by that because it seems like a lot of people are unaware that they can simply just vote for that one specific topic and nothing else.
    If voting was promoted with the knowledge that you can just vote for one thing, apathetic people might become potential voters. I can see why it is more practical to promote voting as a chance to vote for everything at once because it gives more votes to certain propositions. But it would make the entire process a lot less overwhelming. Passionate voters will always educate themselves and vote, but apathetic citizens/non-citizens should at least exercise their right.

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