When people say “every vote matters,” they are not necessarily wrong, but usually the way they mean it is incorrect. In general, they mean it as “every vote counts.” In the Electoral College, that assertion is statistically false. Many people, students especially, have mobilized to increase voter turnout, convinced that American democracy would be more animated and the outcomes different if only we could get more citizens out for the big day on November 8th. The fact is that voter turnout can, in some cases, sway the election, but in many states, voters from the minority party have little to no effect on the eventual destination of their state’s electoral votes.
As someone whose vote has about as much of a chance of changing the election as I do of winning the whole thing (exactly 0%), I would say my vote matters, but in a much more abstract way than voting advocates usually say. It would be silly to think the election would be any different without my vote or without the vote of every single other conservative in Massachusetts, where Hillary Clinton has a 99.9% chance of winning. My national vote does not have the potential to create change.
So why did I vote? I did want my voice heard. As one of a few McMullin supporters, I want my vote to be counted with the rest of my like-minded friends as a rebellion against a candidate I think is profoundly un-conservative. I also think it is important to express gratitude that I have the right to participate in my government. But I knew that filling in that first question of the long Massachusetts ballot sheet was the least important form of civic engagement I would engage in all year.
For some reason, it seems that most Americans feel the opposite way. The highest voter turnout is in national elections, with far lower percentages of eligible voters turning out for state and local elections. It is common for people to leave most of their ballot blank when they vote in presidential election years, voting only for president and, perhaps, for a state representative.
However, we might as well be honest with our voting friends. If you live in most states, your vote is simply symbolic. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t “matter.” Of course, symbols matter. Your voice matters. But that action is unlikely to shape the fate of the country, nor is it likely to be an action that makes a noticeable difference in your life.
Do not despair that your national vote is weak–everyone’s is. National voting is the most ineffectual of the endless opportunities to engage in a robust civic life. State and local elections are much more critical to the everyday experiences of citizens, and individual votes are more likely to sway them. Those looking to be politically involved can also attend town hall meetings, donate to interest groups, sign petitions, contact elected officials, publish op-eds, and do a host of other things that have a potential to shape the government at every level.
This is all to say that every vote in the presidential election does matter, but not all that much. The voting registration initiatives that come around every four years are commendable, but they reinforce the false idea that voting in the national election is the most important element of the American citizen’s civic life. In terms of potential to affect change, I would say it is the least–I would much rather have drives urging people to vote for their city council member or fill out referendum questions on the ballot.
Apparently, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker feels the same way. A successful Republican governor in a deep blue state, Baker clearly takes civic participation seriously. He will be voting this election cycle, of course–but he will be leaving the first question blank.
Like Stan Marsh in 2004, Baker does not believe that either of the candidates presented are worth voting for, and he will thus abstain from voting in the presidential election. However, he has been very active in campaigning on the state ballot questions, especially in support of charter schools, an initiative important to Massachusetts conservatives. He will be voting in every other race on the ballot as well. If Governor Baker sees his national vote as inconsequential enough to ignore, and essentially protest, perhaps shifting our priorities from the national to the state and local elections and modes of participation makes sense.
In my humble opinion, I think everyone should vote in the presidential election. Ideally, everyone would vote in every election and go to town meetings and engage in political dialogue regularly. However, in a world of limited time and competing commitments, I would more realistically hope that everyone participates in a way that is most meaningful to them. And perhaps, for a Republican from Massachusetts or a Democrat from Alabama, voting in the national election simply is not it.