Don’t Waste Your Vote

Michael Tomasky writes, in “Why No One Should Vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein,” The Daily Beast (09.29.16), “About 90,000 voters in Florida in 2000 thought they were just having their jollies. Instead, those Ralph Nader voters did end up doing their part in helping to give us George W. Bush, which in turn gave us Iraq and the Great Recession and all the rest of it.” 

To be sure, Bush gave us the Iraq War. But don’t forget Hillary Clinton’s role. Remember, she voted for the war. Without Congressional support, it would have been a lot harder for Bush to wage aggressive war against Iraq. However, Bush did not give us the “Great Recession.” Presidents aren’t really responsible for the chaos of capitalism. Recessions reflect the cyclical character of the capitalist mode of production, which may be exacerbated by many factors, for example the Clinton Administration’s financial sector deregulations and the passage and implementation of NAFTA (which occurred under Clinton). Of course, George W. Bush is responsible for a lot of terrible things. I did not support his re-election bid in 2004, because I disagreed with his policies and actions while president. It is rather snarky to say Nader voters were getting the “jollies.” (Fuck you, Michael)

Back to 2000. George Bush beat Al Gore by 543 votes in Florida. According to the official 2001 Statistics of the November 7, 2000 Florida election, every third-party candidate received enough votes to have cost Al Gore the election (this is accepting for the sake of argument the view that votes for third parties cost major parties). The Reform Party recorded 17,484 votes. The Libertarian Party recorded 16,415 votes. The Workers World, Socialist, and Social Workers parties took a combined 2,988. 

Who were Nader voters? Many of them were Independents, under 30, first-time voters, and former Perot/Reform Party supporters. Based on profile, they were not the traditional Democratic voters. In fact, nationwide, only 2% of Nader voters described themselves as “Democrat,” according to exit polling data. Claiming they would have otherwise voted for Nader is sheer speculation. 

Who where Bush voters? In his analysis (Z Magazine), Michael Eisencher found that 20% of all Democratic voters, 12% of all self-identified liberal voters, 39% of all women voters, 44% of all seniors, one-third of all voters earning under $20,000 per year and 42% of those earning $20-30,000 annually, and 31% of all voting union members voted for Bush. That last bit bears repeating: 31% of voting union members voted for Bush. An analysis out of UCLA found at least 40% of Nader voters in the key state of Florida would have voted for Bush, as opposed to Gore, had they turned out in a Nader-less election. So there is no way to prove the contention that had Nader not been in the race Bush would have lost. Why do Democrats keep making this claim?

Then there is this: 250,000 registered Democrats voted for Bush in Florida. Nader recorded 97,421 votes in Florida. Why do Democrats harp on Nader’s vote count while failing to criticize the quarter of a million fellow Democrats who voted for George Bush? Aren’t they the ones who are actually responsible for Bush winning since they voted for Bush (leaving aside voter disenfranchisement, the Supreme Court, and other shenanigans)? 

A vote for Nader is not a vote for Bush (the world doesn’t run on magic), so the criticism of Nader doesn’t make sense. Many of those who voted for Nader would not have voted at all had Nader not been in the race. Nonvoters who preferred Nader (or theoretically anybody) had precisely the same effect on the election as Nader voters. Do people really not see this? If I stay home, I do not elect anybody. Only people who vote elect people and they only elect the people they vote for if their candidate wins.

Tomasky says, “A vote is not for a person. A vote is cast for a coalition of forces and interests that have a realistic chance of moving the country and world in the direction you prefer, even when the candidate is imperfect. If you make yourself a part of that coalition, you can be a part of a movement that can influence the imperfect candidate in a better direction. That’s serious politics. Everything else just isn’t.”

There’s so much wrong with this argument. Voting does not make you part of a coalition. A coalition is an alliance for combined action, for example an alliance of political parties forming a government or nation-states going to war. There are millions of voters that show up at the polls and vote and go home and are not part of anything except a collective exercise in solidarity. Moreover, you don’t have to vote to be part of a coalition. There are people who join their groups with others groups to push for actions that move quite outside the vote. Indeed, electoral politics carries a pacifying effect; the voter has accomplished her or his civic duty and now only needs to trust the winning candidate carry out her or his agenda. Elections are often as much demobilizing as they are mobilizing moments. Elections are often as much demobilizing as they are mobilizing moments. Look at how election of Obama killed the anti-war and anti-corporatist movement. (And look at how me voting for a third party in 2008 and 2012 had no impact on the outcome of the election.) 

If reality is taken into account, Tomasky’s “serious politics” is exposed as fantasy politics, a politics that strokes the ego of the voter by leading the voter to think he/she has some grand power to affect the direction of the nation – setting up the voter who votes on conscience and principle for ridicule by those who are unhappy (but helpless to change) the outcome. This view of the vote grossly overvalues the strategic impact of a vote and fails to understand basic statistical probability. Around 5 million votes were cast in Florida (more than 100,000,000 votes were cast in the 2000 presidential election). One person’s vote carries a statistically negligible impact on the outcome of the election, somewhere in the neighborhood of winning lottery jackpot or dying in a commercial airliner crash. Yes, these things happen (they are extremely rare), but you are acting irrationally if you waste your money on the lottery or fear flying. 

Your vote is for a person – for the the person and party that reflects your values and promises to act on the principles and values you care about. That’s all your vote can be (that’s what it is meant to be).

The truth is that voting for a major party candidate in order to stop the other major party candidate from winning is a wasted vote. If you vote for the politician you don’t like because you like another politician even less, then you just threw away your vote because its significance as a strategic tool is false significance. You will have missed an opportunity to vote for who you really wanted to vote for. 

When it comes down to it, what’s the point of voting at all if you can’t stand in solidarity with the people who want to realize shared aspirations?

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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