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Your Vote Doesn’t Count


I have followed the presidential election returns pretty closely, and for the life of me, I cannot find a single state where George W. Bush and Al Gore were tied or where the margin victory was one vote.

This is important because everyone from President Clinton to the most obscure news anchorperson has repeated incessantly that this election proves once and for all that every vote counts. In particular, they had Florida in mind.

My question is this: how does a 537-vote margin in Florida demonstrate that every vote counts? I know that the governments schools aren’t terribly good at teaching our children arithmetic, but this is a little absurd. Bush won Florida by 537 votes. Should someone who would have voted for Gore but stayed home kick himself for letting Bush win? The answer is yes if he could have cast 538 votes. But its one man one vote, remember? Had this person exercised his civic duty and voted, Bush’s margin would have been 536. Conclusion: that persons vote did not count, if by count we mean determine the outcome. The same is true for every other persons vote. We can say that in Florida, every block of 537 votes counted, but that is far different from saying each vote counted.

So enough of this every vote counts nonsense. Aggregate votes count. If millions of Bushs or Gores voters had stayed home, the outcome might have been different. But no one controls millions of votes. When we wake up in the morning election day is no exception we each ask ourselves, What shall I do today? Almost automatically we separate our possible choices into two categories: those that in our best judgment have a chance of bringing about a desired result and those that do not. We routinely discard those in the second category. If I have to go to work that day, I do not flap my arms or twitch my nose to get there. I also do not make a wish that I will find a million dollars in my wallet, obviating the need for me to go to work at all. Why? Because I know it will have no effect on the desired outcome.

On election day, voting is one of the actions I can take. But I submit that course of conduct to the same test: will it contribute to bringing about a desired outcome? That raises the question, what is the desired outcome? If it is to feel good about giving my sanction to a candidate I admire and to join in the community of like- minded citizens, then voting will bring that about. Thus that may be a good reason to vote.

But if the desired outcome is the election of a particular person, then my voting is most unlikely to bring that about. Indeed, I have a better chance of being hit by lightning while driving to the polls than of breaking a tie in the election. In other words, determining the winner is a bad reason to vote.

When I argue this to people, they invariably say, What if everyone thought that way? Obviously, my decision not to vote is based on what I think other people will do. That’s true of many actions. When a young person announces that he wishes to become a doctor, do we say, What if everyone thought that way? If everyone becomes a doctor, there will be no businessmen or lawyers or shopkeepers. If I thought no one was going to vote on election day, I might vote, because in that case my vote would be decisive. My reason for not voting is precisely that by any rational estimate, my vote will not be decisive.

Finally, what about the plea that we should vote because it is our most precious right, which people have died for? First, voting is not the most precious right. The most precious rights are life, liberty, and property. If Americas servicemen died for anything, it was the right to live their lives and raise their families as they see fit. As any number of examples demonstrate, the right to vote is no guarantee of that.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.