by J.D. Tuccille
September 30, 2004

Why Vote?

Once again, civic-minded types are hectoring us all to trudge to the polls on Election Day and cast our supposedly all-important votes. "People realize that in a close election, just a few votes can make a difference," Alyssa Burhans of National Voice, a Minneapolis-based voting-is-good-for-you group, recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Honestly though, voting can't make a difference of the sort Ms. Burhans seems to have in mind. So many votes are cast in the average election -- over 100 million in the 2000 presidential election -- that a single ballot dutifully submitted on the way to work in the morning counts for less than a hiccup in a hurricane.

If it's counted at all, that is. As we've discovered in recent years with the chad-counting fiasco in Florida and the controversy over electronic voting systems, any balloting system designed by human beings is flawed.

After the contested Bush/Gore election, Bill Briggs, a professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado, wrote, "popular vote totals are reported to the nearest vote, suggesting that every vote cast was counted and counted accurately. If we didn't suspect it earlier, the 2000 election told us convincingly that such precision is illusory. ... Because of mechanical, electronic, and human errors, the actual precision of vote counting is several orders of magnitude worse than what is needed to determine an election as close as Florida's."

Sometimes, votes simply get lost. The CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project reports, "Though over 100 million Americans went to the polls on election day 2000, as many as 6 million might just have well have spent the day fishing." The Project calls for improved voting technology to reduce the number of lost votes.

That's "reduce," not "eliminate." Even the best human-designed systems are a little sloppy. Professor Briggs says that optical scanning systems, which require voters to cast ballots schoolroom-style by filling in little ovals with number-two pencils, "reduce errors to less than 1%." That's a big improvement over messier alternatives, but it still means that any presidential election decided by less than a million votes might as well be settled by a coin toss.

The Electoral College complicates things further. It's true that America's indirect system for electing presidents keeps the choice of the nationŐs chief executive out of the hands of a few densely populated cities -- earning the everlasting thanks of those Americans resistant to the iron-fisted charms of Rudy Giuliani and the Daley dynasty. But the winner-take-all awards of electoral votes favored by most states essentially nullify the presidential preferences of political minorities in states dominated by one of the major parties. As far as deciding the presidential contest goes, Democrats in Utah and Republicans in Massachusetts might as well sleep in late on Election Day.

Oddly, the votes that count the most are those of people frequently accused of wasting their votes -- supporters of small political parties and independent candidates. These voters are generally less concerned with winning the current election than they are with voicing dissatisfaction with the major partiesŐ candidates and paving the way for possible future victories. While supporters of "minor" presidential candidates like Libertarian Michael Badnarik and Independent Ralph Nader still have to contend with dropped chads and lost ballots, each vote counted achieves its goal by expressing support for a set of ideas neglected by mainstream politicians and (importantly) by flipping a bird at Republicans and Democrats.

So, what is a civically minded voter to do?

Americans who want to "make a difference" by helping to decide the outcome of tight elections are out of luck; individual votes just can't live up to the claims of good-government types. Whether any given voter sleeps in on Election Day or marches through deep snow to cast a ballot, the final outcome of the election won't change one bit.

But if we stop pretending that individual votes will decide who gets into office, voting is still a decent way to send a message to public officials; it's cheaper and easier than sending a telegram. By following the vote tallies, politicians may enjoy groundswells of support -- or else see that many constituents want laws and policies very different from what they're getting.

So we might still mind the nags and cast our votes -- so long as we do so with realistic expectations. We just shouldn't get too hung up on whether or not that dutiful trip to the polling place will "make a difference."

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.