The myth of the wasted vote

By Erik Jay
web posted March 13, 2000

To a tremendous number of people, the polling booth, that great populist amplifier of their chorused voice, is the very symbol of American democracy. Notwithstanding the inconvenient technicality that we actually live in a republic, quite a different genus of political/governmental animal altogether, the act of voting has forever been extolled as among the greatest civic virtues, almost on a par with the "public service" of elective office. And, of course, "if you don't vote you don't have any right to complain."

At the same time, however -- for the purposes of this argument, this means since the advent of mass media, e.g., since the Truman-Dewey campaign of 1948 -- another myth was being added to the corpus of American legends: the myth of the wasted vote. If you don't vote, you're no respecter of democracy; but if you do vote, your one ballot won't make any difference. Is it inevitable that we end up in this fatalistic cul-de-sac? Is there anything to the myth of the wasted vote?

Well, not in my book, and there's just about 900 words of explanation necessary, so this is a perfect column topic -- and topical too! In this overheated primary season, perhaps we should reflect on voting. The first thing I would say about voting is that marking a ballot in a booth on a certain Tuesday is only one way Americans vote; it may not even be the most important.

Despite all the problems we do have -- America is populated, after all, by humans -- we do enjoy as much personal liberty as any other people on earth. We have autonomy over a great deal of our personal, interpersonal, commercial, and contractual relationships; we exercise our discretion and employ our judgement in matters both mundane and life-changing; we sow, we water, we reap, we win some, we lose some. But we're making important decisions -- we're voting -- every day of our lives, and in every area of it. And the repercussions of those votes are both manifold and manifest, especially in the digitized light speed world of today's markets.

Is this weekend's teen-scream flick a hit? If it is, it's because six or eight million people voted with their wallets to make it so. Is the new Thai-Mexican-Italian restaurant down the street a success? Well, if their food campaign is as hot and spicy as a Bill Clinton anecdote, they'll get the votes and a mandate for dessert. And a "hit" of any kind -- the "Seinfeld" show, a number one record, a movie -- is easy to characterize as the biggest vote-getter in a crowded field of candidates if you simply remember that greenbacks are ballots, too. And they're the ones you use every day.

But what about that "wasted vote" argument, the one that posits the inefficacy of any single vote. Well, the argument stands up -- as long as you're voting in a vacuum. But we don't exercise our franchise in the two minutes it takes to punch or mark a ballot; whether we enjoy the cacophony or not, we are part of a noisy, rollick some, contentious, persiflaginous process that results -- after weeks and months and, in presidential campaigns, years! -- in a marked ballot. If, during that process, you convinced five others, who convinced five others, etc. and down the line, that "one vote" didn't make a difference, why, then you've made a difference of 25, or 100, or more, haven't you? Or, if you're a radio talkmeister with a conservative audience who promulgates the Myth of the Wasted Vote for some old-school self-defeating reason, then you've cost some local libertarian a race for the planning commission, or helped elect another Democrat to the state assembly or (God forbid) the Congress. It is only after an election that one can safely assert the worthlessness of the single vote.

It is odd, though, that these two contradictory notions -- that you're a putz if you think your one vote can make a difference, but a worse one if you don't vote -- coexist so cordially in our social mythology. Is voting the summum bonum of the democratic (republican) ethic? Is it the right that undergirds all the others? Is voting what makes one a good citizen?

Frankly, voting is one of the less important "rights" we exercise. There are any number of political/governmental accommodations constructed in such a way as to add a democratic component (voting) to an autocratic formula. They just wrapped up an election in Iran recently, and the Western press was positively ecstatic that the authorities allowed the polling places to stay open a few hours late to accommodate the crush of voters. Less reported was the fact that the Iranian press corps is a virtual government department, or that these people who are "free" because they can go to the polling place are not free to buy a copy of the Tel Aviv Times or Newsweek on their way home.

Anyone who is productive, particularly those whose entrepreneurial enterprises end up employing dozens or scores or hundreds of people, is accomplishing much more outside the polling booth than inside. For the unproductive, the polling booth is positively the best place to be, preferably as often as possible on as many issues as possible. Frankly, one of the more important reasons to vote -- particularly for those who accept the argument that there are better ways to effect social change than voting -- is to act as ballast against those who would use the ballot as a social requisition form. Realistically, if we were to pursue our other goals without recourse to voting -- still possible and safe until the FDR era -- we would be at the mercy of the political spoils system and those who exploit it from both top and bottom. For self-defense if nothing else, we need to go to the polls.

However, that is not where the power really is. It is in the millions of individual votes cast every day, in supermarkets and cinemas, newsrooms and auto dealerships, among college students and senior citizens, at home and on the job. It is in the millions of purchases -- the greenback vote -- and the tens of millions of remote-control channel clicks echoing across the country during prime time. These are the real votes that count in this often overdemocratized country of ours, where some pundits are beginning to lobby for instantaneous, online voting as a way to increase election-day voter turnout.

That, of course, is a terrible idea. But all the other online voting is nothing but good. Just this week I cast a number of (greenback) ballots over the Internet -- for two new CD's, a collection of writings from Eco-logic, and some computer stuff. In my opinion, the only thing that should be banned from online voting is politicians.

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting

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