Tuesday, October 18, 2016


No candidate has earned a majority of all potential (regardless of registration) voters, not once in my lifetime. Which means that the people who don't vote, or who vote for a third-party candidate, have an enormous amount of power. Which they waste.
Seth Godin "Ketchup and the third-party problem"
In Mister Godin's post, "waste" was a link, and it lead to "There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote," by Clay Shirky. The piece opens with a simple theory:
In 2016, that system will offer 130 million or so voters just three options:

A. I prefer Donald Trump be President, rather than Hillary Clinton.
B. I prefer Hillary Clinton be President, rather than Donald Trump.
C. Whatever everybody else decides is OK with me.

That’s it. Those are the choices. All strategies other than a preference for Trump over Clinton or vice-versa reduce to Option C.
He then gives three reasons why people make protest votes, the enormous amount of power that Mr. Godin says that they waste. The votes that Mr. Shirky describes as thrown away.

The three reasons, the theoretical frameworks that Mr. Shirky ascribes to protest voters (or non-voters) are:
  1. Boycotting the election in the hope of delegitimizing it.
  2. Defecting from one of the major parties in the hope that they will come courting later.
  3. Hoping their candidate will somehow win.
The argument against delegitimizing an election through boycotting is fairly simple: In the United States, people don't have to vote, and in most (if not all) elections to seat people into offices, there is no minimum threshold, below which the vote becomes void. And a lot of people don't bother to vote. Enough so that in Presidential elections "none of the above" (didn't vote) tends to be the single largest block of voters. And it's difficult to impossible to make a statement by not voting when so many other people are doing the same, with little regard to message.

The argument against defection is also simple: the political parties don't tend to work to align themselves with voters they didn't capture in the last election. Remember all of the talk about how the Republican party needed to show itself as more friendly to Hispanic voters after the drubbing Mitt Romney took in 2012? Yeah, that lasted about all of a half-hour, didn't it? And if the parties aren't going to chase your vote, then withholding it does little good.

The argument against victory is perhaps the simplest: It never happens. Even a wildly-popular ex-president like Theodore Roosevelt couldn't manage it. And despite spending literally years denouncing the Democrats, Bernie Sanders ran for their nomination, rather than as a third-party candidate because he knew that as a true "outsider," he stood no chance. In this light, voting for a minor-party candidate thinking they'll actually win is delusional.

All points well taken. But. If you don't find either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton compelling; that is to say that between the two of them you have no preference, is your vote any less wasted or thrown away by giving it to either one of them?

While Mr. Godin sees "an enormous amount of power" in those disaffected with options A or B, that power only exists in the aggregate - and in the aggregate they could deny both of the major parties the Presidency. As individuals, however, what are those votes worth? While it's not a majority, or maybe even a plurality of voters, the number of people who vote for the major party candidates is large - and in that pool of active support, the passive support of "not wasting a vote" is not going to make a difference - after all, it's not like the people who simply didn't bother to vote is small. A few more votes here or there are unlikely to sway the outcome without a concerted effort to coordinate all of the would-be protest (non)voters - if they break down roughly the way the rest of the populace does, the final tallies are a little higher than they would have been otherwise, but that's it.

And, for that every same reason, "un-defecting" is unlikely to make a difference. Political parties are no more responsive to small groups of people who simply hand over their votes than they are to small groups of defectors. Otherwise, it could be argued that the Democratic party would have made a fairly hard and youth-driven turn to the left over the past eight years. And if you live in a state that's strongly Red or Blue, a few more voters here and there are significantly easier to ignore.

That leaves the final consideration: being on the winning team. But if there isn't going to be a payoff, in terms of policies one supports, what good does having picked the winning side do? Sure, the winners may pat you on the head for having done what they understand is your duty, but what has the would-be protest voter won? Nothing.

Given that the arguments against protest voting aren't really reasons to not protest vote, is it really accurate to describe those votes as "wasted" or "thrown away?" They're not really a resource for anything; at least from the point of view of the voter.

In the end, Messrs. Shirky and Godin were both making points about engagement. Mr. Shirky was making the point that loudly proclaiming one's protest vote was simply a form of posturing, and Mr. Godin was pointing out that the work of shaping democracy is mostly done well way from the polls. And those are very good points. Putting a check next to the name of the person you want to be savior-in-chief and then walking away rarely produces results. While it is certainly very true that "The system is set up so that every choice other than 'R' or 'D' boils down to 'I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens'," that doesn't mean that 'R' and 'D' are automagically non-deferments.

For the person who doesn't see their desires, ambitions and intentions reflected in the major-party candidates for office, there is no way for them to not waste their vote. It's thrown away by definition, because simply picking one or the other crowd to follow gets them nothing more than writing in Mickey Mouse or setting fire to their ballot in the driveway. Rubbing their noses in this fact doesn't get us anywhere. Democracy is full of compromises; it's part of gaining the consent of the losers. We can have them in the electoral process, in the governing process or both. Picking a random side of a compromise that you find deplorable in all of its facets isn't any better or worse than not participating in it at all. There are some 220,000,000 adults in the United States who are eligible to vote. Of those, some 145,000,000 are registered. The fact that the political system, any political system, is going to serve some number of them poorly, and some number not at all is a given. Sure, we can give those people shit about wanting the system to be on their side, when they simply don't have the resources to make it worth anyone's while. But I don't know what we get out of that. Pointing out that they're spending a lot of energy to get nothing for it doesn't help them get anything for it. And it doesn't tell them how to better spend their energy.

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