Why Do You Vote?

Originally published on July 16, 2012 10:24 am

"Your vote matters!" This is a familiar refrain. But does it really?

In an election where there are millions of voters, the chances that your vote will decide the outcome are very small, comparable to winning the lottery. I don't play the lottery. I'd like to win the money, of course. But the chances of winning are tiny. It's a waste of money.

But I vote. Why? Isn't it a waste of time, and maybe even money, too?

"You never know. The election might come down to your vote."

This is true. It's also true that I might win the lottery. That doesn't make it rational for me to pay money for a ticket.

"You have to vote, because if everybody stopped voting, the system would grind to a halt."

Yes. But. I know that millions of people will, as a matter of fact, vote. So I know that my vote is unlikely to count.

If I am a candidate, I'll do everything I can to get my supporters to the polls, especially in battleground states. And if I support a candidate, I'll support his or her efforts to bring out the vote. But why bother to vote myself? My vote won't matter, in all likelihood.

If you are like me, you'll find this line of reasoning persuasive, but also, somehow, outrageous, even offensive.

Let's grant that voting matters. And let's grant that it doesn't matter because your vote, or mine, is likely to make a difference. We are thrown back on the question: Why do you vote? Why does voting matter?

One possibility is that it's not voting as such that matters, but elections, and elections are not one-off acts of casting ballots, but long, drawn-out national discussions about values and choices and commitments. And one might go further and notice that elections can only serve this function against the background of the other institutions that organize our social lives — the courts, political parties, the independent press, interest groups, unions, businesses, and also schools, clubs, and all the rest.

Indeed, it has been remarked (for example by Fareed Zakaria) that you don't institute democracy in a country, in any full-blooded sense, just by giving people the vote. The vote, in the absence of the social institutions that make elections meaningful, can't amount to much more than a kind of complex political lottery.

This is a pretty rosy view. Voting matters because of its place in the setting of a democratic culture.

Even so, the question remains: why do you vote? Is the casting of ballots a ritual? An obligation? An expression of feeling?

But there is also a darker possibility in the vicinity. Perhaps voting is the opiate of our democratic masses? We vote and fool ourselves into thinking we are participating in the broader fabric of the country's political life. We do not so much engage in politics, as we watch it on TV, just as we might watch a sporting event. We cast our ballots the way we text-in our preferences on American Idol.

Another question: how democratic is our political culture, really?

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe

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