Don’t Vote! No, Seriously, Don’t Vote

Chris Sacca just pointed me to this new YouTube video with tons of A-list celebrities urging us, "Don’t vote!" They each talk about different important issues in America and why none of it matters and why you should just not vote.

It’s a clever and funny reverse-psychology tactic to encourage voting. I think it’s Forest Whitaker who sums it up nicely: If you care, vote. At the end it displays information on how to register to vote. I suspect this video will obtain wide circulation.

But why do we so quickly accept the argument that anyone who cares ought to vote? The better advice is: If you know what you’re doing, vote. See Bryan Caplan’s recent three minute interview on CTV where he articulates this point.

Caplan says we don’t insist that everyone drive a car — we demand proof of driving ability first. We don’t want everyone performing surgery unless he/she has familiarity with anatomy. Why do we insist that everyone vote? The usual response is that uninformed voters balance each other out, but as Caplan shows in his excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, this doesn’t actually happen. Illogical policies get passed — oftentimes, I would add, policies that work against the self-interest of the person who innocently voted for them.

So, if you read up on the issues, please vote in November. If you aren’t informed, please voluntarily step away from the voting booth and keep your hands where we can see them!

18 comments on “Don’t Vote! No, Seriously, Don’t Vote
  • Ben:

    You say ‘illogical policies get passed’. Actually studies of policy making processes indicate that rationality as a paradigm does not really work. Rational paradigms presume well defined problems, clear resources, well identified boundary conditions and clear cut answers. Real policy decisions are outcomes of negotiated agreements, driven by agendas. Naturally they don’t always look logical or rational.

    On the rest, I am with you. I wrote during the last Scottish elections about ‘linguistic apartheid’ when the authorities offered ballot papers in many languages when the issues at stake included Scottish independence vote which needed voters to understand Scottish history and as far as I know, finding THAT in Italian or Urdu or Tamil was not going to be possible. That the ballot papers were available in many languages could lull voters into believing they were choosing wisely when they weren’t going to.

  • If only informed people voted, then this november’s victor would win with maybe 10,000 votes. 99% of voters are dangerously and uniquely uninformed to cast a proper vote.

  • The chances of people deciding they’re not informed enough to vote seem close to zero. Only good and modest people would opt out, leaving an even higher proportion of dumbheads to decide the future!

    But I object to the idea that it is one’s moral obligation to vote, because frankly sometimes the difference between the candidates available is hair’s breadth thin. And I don’t like being told what to care about by self-appointed moral superiors.

    The moral obligation to vote idea is always pushed by someone who thinks one side is vastly preferable to the other, right? If Hitler was standing, I’d vote. But none of these people are that awful, or that good. Low turnout sends a message that should be listened to (and it’s not “we the people are too stupid to do the right thing”, either).

  • No, really, don’t vote — or at least, don’t glorify voting as if a democracy magically becomes more functional as more people enter the voting booth. Unless you live in a handful of swing states, your vote is irrelevant to begin with; and even if you’re in a state that is up for grabs, the chance of an individual vote making any difference is, of course, enormously slim. And unless you’re actually informed about the issues, you’re actually doing harm by voting.

    If you want to improve society, it is far more effective to volunteer, write a book, or teach someone something new — voting isn’t likely to make a wit of difference.

  • Voting is the physical expression of the idea that each person should have an equal chance to express their voice.

    I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to express their voice; therefore, I am a firm advocate for voting.

    Sure, some people know more than others. But it should be up to each individual whether they would like to vote or not, just as the system exists today.

    I despise the argument, “your vote doesn’t really count because it’s just one vote and the numbers are so large.”

    Each vote is tallied. Each vote counts. Even if your candidate does not win, your vote will be weighed in years to come. States that move closer to becoming swing states will get more attention in future years and albeit slow, that is still progress.

    Plus, there are other ways to influence the election. We all know that! Voting pays respect to the idea that we should all have the opportunity express our voice. But politics is like any other competition. If you really care about a candidate, you can donate and volunteer. I’m willing to bet there are plenty of volunteers who have registered more than 100 voters for this registration.

    If you think the political system is broken, then either try to fix it or stay silent.

    If you think voters are misinformed, then take a look at the education system and try to figure out how we can produce better citizens, or stay silent.

    If you think your vote doesn’t count, I wonder what you are really trying to say….that your vote should count for more? I think you are confused with the purpose of democratic government. The purpose of democratic government is not supposed to give individual people the power to sway the election one way or the other. No, it is supposed to take into equal account each member of a population. There are 300+ million people in the US and each of us is just one person.

  • Joel, you say: “I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to express their voice; therefore, I am a firm advocate for voting.”

    This misses the point. Like most people, I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to vote, just like everyone should have an equal opportunity to drive a car.

    It doesn’t mean everyone CAN drive a car.

    I’m undecided whether there should be some sort of test to determine if a citizen is capable of casting an informed vote. If there’s no such a test, I’d just say the uninformed should voluntarily step aside and not mess up the democratic process for the rest of us. And people shouldn’t just blindly register voters who don’t know what they’re doing, just as we wouldn’t distribute car keys to those who don’t know how to drive.

    I agree that making people more educated would help. But that is a separate discussion.

  • I don’t think we should make people pass a test because the test in and of itself will be looking for values, and that already assumes some values are better than others and already shapes the political process. I think people’s opinions should be weighed into that process. Many of the comments here state that people are misinformed.

    But what if YOU are misinformed and not them?

    Think about it.

    I agree that society could be better informed about voting. I could personally be much better informed about voting. So could you. And everyone out there. Let’s work on educating ourselves and those around us rather than dividing ourselves and making cutoffs. That sounds like elitism at its poorest to me.

  • Ben,

    Try viewing this issue thro a different prism.

    The outcome of election is the institution of a legislative body for governance for a prescribed term. This body is expected to make laws on all issues that will govern both you and me and the entire population that is a heterogenous mass, each having their own take on issues. Remember my problem is not the same as yours and hence my solution to issues can’t be same as yours. Now who will judge who is informed or uninformed, right or left? Can there not be different ways – right and left – to deal with issues? Even the most informed may not have answers for unprecedented problems, say – who knows the $700 billion bailout is indeed the solution to salvage American banking system? Is it ok to be crafted by someone like Hank Paulson, a one time investment banker who drew $42 million in bonuses and therefore part of the problem than the solution? But no one can say for sure whether he is right or wrong because we’ve never been thro this before. May be Paulson could solve it because he was part of the problem. It certainly begs for answers because there is no one sure tested way out.

    So why not everyone be allowed to vote when no one qualifies? Imagine an olympian, a fund manager, an economist, a doctor, a literature nobel laureate, an unemployed, a slum dweller getting `outed’ from the electoral process because they failed some tunnel visioned, ill-conceived `tests’!

    Your driving metaphor is also not quite apt here because granting license to unqualified or under-trained would mean loss of limbs, life and property of others besides that of the driver, damages that are often irreversible. But in politics, motions go thro several layers of internal controls before different sets of people and then it becomes a law. Even after it becomes a law, if it is found ineffective it can always be revoked or amended which is not of much use after people are mowed down on the road.

  • Krishna, your points are well taken.

    You’re right that driving a car and voting — if you are trained in neither — result in different types of negative consequences. The car example is worse (car crash –> death). But people underestimate the collective impact of many uninformed people voting for stupid policies.

    Contrary to your implication, there are “right” policies and “wrong” policies in some cases. As Caplan notes in the interview, on issues of free trade, virtually everyone who’s actually studied the topic agrees. People who have never studied the topic hold differing opinions. Surely the opinions of those who actually think about the issue ought to be trusted more than the random Joe’s two cents.

    You needn’t be an economist to think about an issue. If you spend a couple hard hours thinking about something, to me, that qualifies.

    Unfortunately, even this low bar would *disqualify* vast swaths of the population.

  • I’m surprised that I don’t see the word “civics” here, and I for one find it disturbing that the idea of preventing citizens from voting is being so casually tossed about.

    The most heated political discussions of my youth took place not at the local barbershop, but in the classroom.

    We need civics classes in our middle and high schoools.

    Rather than debating the pros and cons of denying the ballot to uninformed voters or the merits of a competency test for them (a terrible idea), it would be more consistent with the ideals of our democracy to educate the citizenry in the fundamentals of representative government in a democratic republic.

    Every middle school student by seventh grade should know the history of our declaration of independence and how consensus was reached by compromise in the writing of our Constitution.

    I’d go so far as to say no student in the US should start college without knowing who Pericles was.

    At my small-town junior high school we started with reading selections from Plato’s Republic and then studied the rise of democracy in Greece.

    It’s simply foolhardy for a society to allow universal suffrage and not educate the people in a voter’s responsibilities.

  • Ben, your blog is reliably a breath of fresh air for me. Thanks for your continued intelligence and bravery in holding a rational yet unpopular viewpoint.

    This year (as in the last election) I’m voting Libertarian via absentee ballot. Voting Libertarian has a statistically more significant impact than voting for a Republican or Democrat because third parties need a certain % of the vote in each state to get major party ballot access in the following election. This usually ends up being a few thousand votes – so I’m happy to contribute mine.

    I vote absentee because it’s not worth my time to travel to/from the voting booth. Instead, I spend one hour working specifically so I can donate an hour’s consulting fee ($150) to a cause that’s important to me. I also believe strongly in participating in local politics, because you can have a great impact when only a few others are participating alongside you. Basically, there are better investments with higher returns than going to/from a physical poll to vote.

    I’ve also felt conflicted on requiring some manner of testing, but here’s an idea: what if the questions were about America and the world but party-neutral, so instead of the silly campaigns we see now, candidates would have to educate people on the correct answers in order for their vote to count? Heck, we can even announce the 20 questions ahead of time and you’d randomly get, say, 4.

    I’m also intrigued by ideas like range voting.

  • @”Basically, there are better investments with higher returns than going to/from a physical poll to vote.”

    I suppose it depends on how much you value the “local” interaction with the kindly old ladies who take your information at the local polling station and the camaraderie of interacting with your fellow voters.

    If Citizen Jane believes so strongly in participating in local politics, I expect to see her in the flesh.

    The polis enjoy its wine and cheese, too, you know.;-)

  • Now obviously Ben’s approach to this topic is considerably pragmatic. We would all love to exclude those voters swayed by elementary political key words and minor issues. But how much would banning stupidity from the voting booths have an effect on the election? Who knows, but I would guess not too much. There is ignorance on both sides of the table. Those uninformed Democratic voters in living in urban poverty are typically canceled out by uninformed Republican voters living in Hicksville.

    But I think an important issue here a fundamental principle of democracy: no taxation without representation. The ability to vote, whether or not the voter makes a difference, gives people a sense of empowerment and with that culpability. I would argue that such a sense of participation is the very fabric that holds our nation together despite rising political polarities. Giving people reason to believe that they are not responsible for American policies is dangerous. Positive or negative its the contribution itself that counts.

  • Perhaps, but there’s no way to tell. Regardless people need to feel responsible for our government’s actions. Its a lot easier to point fingers at your leaders when you don’t have a say in picking them.

  • Firstly,

    The fact that we are having this conversation strengthens that fact that our democracy and the votes of citizens are both significant in numbers as well as importance. There has never been a time where citizens hold power as much people as they do today. With that being said, many are not using it efficently enough. It is my personal belief, that votes not only count electoral winners and losers, but speak louder than any politician.

    As we speak now, I am writing from Santiago, Chile. From 1973 unitl 1989, Chile was governed by the strident and iron-fisted rule of Augusto Pinochet. After years of silence and obedience from the citizenry, who deposed this ominponet leader? The Army? The CIA? Superman? No, the voters of Chile rising up and recognizing that the ability to positively effect change was in their hands.

    At it very least, voting shows leaders that we as a citizenry are still aliving and somewhat conscientious of their voting decisions. I would however agree with some of the statements of the my fellow bloggers, that the overall knowledge of the American has decreased.

    Since all of us seem to acknowledge the problem that is at hand, we should join together to make a positive difference. We the motivated and the knowledgable have a duty to ourselves and to our country. If we want to see a more just, more equitable and more prosperous future, we must remind our leaders who is truly is charge.

    Finally, instead of mocking or joking about people’s ignorance, we should educate people. Knowledge is probably one of the only things in life, that once it is learned can almost never be taken. Certainly you can lose your house, car, or job, but if you know about the injustices of your government, you can always speak out and vote to change it.

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