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by Gary Galles | Malibu
As election day nears, America’s quadrennial get-out-the-vote frenzy is trying to browbeat voters into exercising their franchise. Unfortunately, the arguments used reflect seriously flawed logic. “If you don't vote, you don't have a voice in government.” This is one of many arguments based on the premise that your vote will affect what passes and who wins. But your vote will not change the outcome. You will prosper or suffer under the same laws and representatives whether you voted for a winner or a loser, or didn’t vote at all. “If you don't vote, you have no right to complain about government.” This reflects the same false assumption. Further, binary choices between major party candidates and yes or no votes on initiatives written for special interests does not give you the power to invoke your preferences. “If you don't vote, you don't care about America.” No amount of care justifies voting if that vote doesn't alter the outcome. Abstaining has been common since our founding (although unlike today, it then reflected the fact that the government had little power to hurt or help you), when those who had risked their lives for it cared a great deal. “Many brave Americans have died to defend your right to vote." Those who fought to found and preserve our country did so for our liberty and to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," not for our right to vote. The American Revolution and the ratification debates over the Constitution show that the key was not the right to vote (demonstrated by the concern to protect against the tyranny of the majority, denigrated as “mob rule”), but a Constitution that severely limited government’s ability to abuse their citizens, regardless of majority sentiment. This is why the Constitution was intended to “trump” majority votes when they conflict with it (see, for instance, Federalist 78 and 84). "It is your duty to vote." Voting is a citizen's right, implying the right to abstain, not a duty. I have a right to become drunk, divorced and destitute, but that does not give me the duty to do any of them. In fact, casting a largely uninformed vote, which is common, is more a dereliction of a citizen’s duty than a fulfillment of it, as it contributes no valuable input to electoral results. "You must vote, because the electoral process would collapse if everyone chose not to vote.” Beyond the insignificant probability of everyone abstaining, this is just the common “if everyone” fallacy. Unless your voting choice alters many others' choices about whether and/or how to vote, which is unlikely, this is irrelevant to whether you should vote (though politicians must vote to be taken seriously, as witnessed by the harassment given to any candidate who ever failed to vote in previous elections). Do the many invalid “get-out-the-vote” arguments being made imply that you shouldn't vote? No. But they do imply that you shouldn’t vote for invalid reasons and that voting when poorly informed is an inappropriate response to the civics haranguing. Since your one electorally insignificant vote will not change the result, another important implication is that voting for candidates or issues in order to transfer others’ wealth to you is little more than a morally offensive but ineffective attempt at theft. Voting can, however, be a valid form of cheering for candidates and issues you believe advance what James Madison termed “the general and permanent good of the whole,” or against those that violate it (one reason why voting against ballot initiatives so often makes sense). Your vote will not change the outcome, but it can avoid endorsing efforts to plunder some for others, which, except in politics, we condemn. That is the most good your vote can accomplish. So if you choose to vote, that is what your purpose should be. CRO copyright 2008 Gary Galles Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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