Why Your Vote Matters (Even When You Lose)

There is an idea nearly as old as voting that hangs in the backs of the minds of democratic participants: My vote doesn’t matter. The feeling is underscored in contemporary America by the dominance of billionaires, media conglomerates, powerful special interest groups, and local and federal governments who seem more interested in maintaining power than maintaining quality of life.

When the extent of your political power feels limited to a small donation or a vote that seems a million miles away from the seat of power, or, when you want to support a candidate you know will lose, it is hard to muster the energy to be excited to vote, let alone get involved in the campaign in another way. If you feel as though you are forced to choose between two candidates or parties that are each in some way nauseating, I have been there (and will be again).

But here’s the part where I tell you to get over it. Yes we have two deeply disappointing parties, one that I would describe as shitty and the other as destructive, that control all the major offices in the nation. And yes, you may live in a place that is unlikely to elect a better alternative to the incumbent powers for the foreseeable future. But yes, things could get worse.

I’m not going to try to convince you that if you vote in the 2016 elections, different leaders will be in place in 18 months. They probably will be about the same, especially when you consider that only one third of the Senate is up for reelection and the House of Representatives is so gerrymandered that very few incumbents actually face meaningful challenges. But if you think your vote doesn’t matter as a result of these likely outcomes, you haven’t been paying attention.

At least three reasons make it vitally important that you vote, even when your preferred candidate will lose or you feel as though you are choosing between the lesser of two evils.

First, things could be worse. When you do not cast a ballot, you are voting for the status quo. But the status quo is not a steady state, it is a trajectory. Our country is getting steadily more controlled by the few people (mostly men, mostly white) of wealth and power who are not accidentally consolidating their influence. They want it, know how to get it, and will not be handing it back to whiney little would-be voters who don’t like that they don’t get their way. You do not get political influence by long-term abstaining. The best guarantee that things will continue to go in the direction you do not like is to withhold participation.

Second, margin of victory matters. When the group you did not vote for wins and begins to govern, it does so based in part by its sense of mandate. That is, the bigger their margin or victory, the more they believe they are safe to incorporate their political vision. It matters whether the inevitable winner wins by 10 percentage points or 30. Your vote for a losing campaign has direct influence on policy.

Third, democracy can go away. I think there are people in our nation that have forgotten that democracy is not some kind of plug and play operating system. You don’t just go to Apple, purchase “Democracy”, turn it on and expect to get a functioning system. Democracy is only as healthy as its citizens are involved. If you think the voters can go away without the democracy going away with it, you are mistaken.

For those who have forgotten, the American vision (with all its well noted but all-too-dismissed flaws) of a democratic society was a direct reaction to the consolidated power and wealth of people (mostly men, mostly white) whose influence was nearly absolute. Less that 250 years after the establishment of that (vastly flawed) democracy, we are quickly and surely handing the power and wealth back to those few. Our current complaint of absolute power by the few is not a reason to abstain from voting, it is the original reason to vote. Not voting is a participation in the deconstruction of democratic society and what will follow is not a utopian social order. So please, vote. It could definitely be worse.

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