First of all, I think you should vote.
Some people say, “I don’t vote because I don’t live in a swing state, so my vote doesn’t make a difference.”
I find this to be a nonsensical reason for not voting, because your vote never makes a difference, whether you live in a swing state or not.
You might be able to make a difference by convincing other people to vote. But that is an act outside of voting. Your vote itself does not make a difference.
The reason is simple: your vote is never going to be the deciding vote in any serious political election. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that it could. But it won’t. It’s also possible that you’ll be hit by an asteroid on the way to the ballot. Anything’s possible, but most things aren’t going to happen. You may live in a swing state, but your vote won’t decide an election, because you don’t live in that much of a swing state.
100% of the time that I make this argument, I hear the following rebuke:
If a decent portion of the typical non-voters did cast their ballet, they could have have a major impact on the next election. As a non-voter, you do matter.
This is a form of non-sequitur. That is to say, the conclusion does not follow from the setup. Even if it were the case (which it is), that all the non-voters could, collectively, influence an election, it does not follow that your vote matters.
This argument slips a subtle shift in topic under your nose. It starts by talking about “a decent portion of the typical non-voters,” and ends by talking about “you.” Are you a decent portion of the non-voters? No? Then you’re vote does’t matter.
Every time I discuss this with someone, they get incredibly frustrated with me.
They continually default to the mantra that “if a whole bunch of nonvoters voted, it would make a difference.” They repeat that “you need the individual votes to make the many votes!” So, in order to convince you that I really do understand this issue, I’ll look at it more mathematically.
Clearly, what we have is a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the collective action problem. The people I just parodied have such a strong reaction from our discussions because they’re realizing the implications of this problem. Here’s a depiction of the prisoner’s dilemma, with the details swapped out for those of this case:
Outcome B is different (and may indeed be better) than outcome A, but your vote does not create it.
What makes this a collective action problem is that the X-axis is the aggregation of the choices of millions of people. The X-axis is the sum of thousands of independent Y-axes. A collective action problem is really the prisoner’s dilemma with many, many players. But I had to condense it down to this (because I can’t display thousands of dimensions in one graph, sorry).
You may be interested to read the section on “voting” in the Wikipedia page about collective action problems.
People have decided that there are certain collective action problems that can only be solved by government, i.e., through political means. The solution we have come up with is for everyone to vote for politicians, and then for these politicians to enact government policies which address these problems.
A problem with this solution is that it simply replaces those many collective action problems with voting, which is itself one big collective action problem. Researching candidates, their policies, and going to the ballots to make an informed vote is an investment of personal time and energy. We ask people to do this despite that it doesn’t make a difference. It only makes a difference in aggregate. Not for the acting agent.
Despite this, we need people to vote, because the integrity of the system relies on the assumption that people will. That your vote matters is deemed a necessary lie of society, because without it politics as we know it wouldn’t function.
This is why you should vote: as an act of noble self-sacrifice. You’re sacrificing your time and effort, even though the act itself will not change anything. You’re not doing it because you’ve calculated that the reward is worth the work. You’re doing it because it’s your civic duty.
The faith to act on the shared fiction, on the necessity of voting, is perhaps the only way to overcome this final collective action problem. Voting is the “first cause” of the political system whose effects trickle to all other solvable problems of the commons.