Voting “Strategically” Is Nonsense

I haven’t voted in years, and it used to be that my stance would anger lots of people. The one good thing about this election is that the prospect of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton has finally made my philosophy respectable. But even in previous races, voting “strategically” for a candidate you didn’t really love–but hated less than the other guy–made absolutely no sense.

YOUR VOTE DOESN’T MATTER

When analyzing your options in a presidential race, the first thing you need to realize and admit to yourself is this: Your vote does not matter. You will most certainly not affect who the next president is.

For some reason, making this obvious point angers people. Now please bear with me; don’t jump ahead. Let’s just stop and calmly walk through this, to make sure we’re both in agreement that your vote will most certainly NOT affect who the next president is.

The president is determined through the Electoral College. So for your vote to matter, it first of all has to be the case that the presidential race is close enough that the state you live in, is decisive in terms of its votes in the Electoral College. (A state gets as many electors in the Electoral College as it has representatives and senators.) For example, as of this writing, the three biggest states and their number of electors are California (55), Texas (38), and New York (29).

Now suppose the nominees end up being Trump and Clinton, and that Clinton ends up winning by a margin of 62 votes. In other words, suppose Clinton gets 300 total electoral votes, while Trump only gets 238. (There are 300+238=538 total electors in the Electoral College.) Further suppose that California and New York went for Clinton, while Texas went for Trump. In this hypothetical outcome, we can say that California’s outcome mattered to the election, but that in an important sense, no other state’s outcome did. That is to say, if any other state had had a different outcome in its statewide popular vote, it wouldn’t have mattered; Clinton would still have won.

For example, consider New York, which (we assumed) went for Clinton, giving her 29 electors. Now suppose New York had gone for Trump instead; even so, then Clinton would still have won. Because if New York’s 29 electors switched their votes from Clinton to Trump, then the new tallies would be Clinton with 300-29=271 votes, while Trump would have 238+29=267 votes. In our hypothetical scenario, Clinton would still win (by a margin of 4), and so in that important sense we can say that given the behavior of everyone else in America, the people of New York didn’t really influence the election. (Note that except for Maine and Nebraska, the Electoral College works on a “winner-take-all” system, whereby the candidate winning the popular vote in a given state gets all of the electoral votes for the state.)

Now go back to our original scenario, where Clinton wins by a margin of 62. Remember I also told you that Trump won Texas. In this case, we can also conclude that the people in Texas (by themselves) didn’t influence the election. Since we’re supposing they already cast their 38 electors for Trump, and since Clinton is still winning in our scenario, then obviously if Texas switched and had voted for Clinton, then her margin of victory would have been even higher still. So in that important sense, the people in Texas should realize that their state was not decisive in this particular outcome.

In contrast, we can show that California did affect the outcome. So go back to our original scenario where Clinton wins by a margin of 62, where part of her electoral votes came because she won the popular vote in California. In this case, if we now imagine that Trump had instead won in California, then the president would be changed. Specifically, if the 55 California electors switched from Clinton to Trump, the new totals would be 300-55=245 for Clinton and 238+55=293 for Trump, giving Trump the edge. In this important sense, California voters could look at our original outcome (when Clinton won by a margin of 62) and where their state went for Clinton, and think, “Whew! We put her over the top. It’s a good thing our state went for Hillary!”

EVEN IF YOUR STATE IS DECISIVE, YOUR VOTE IS NOT

But let’s take the analysis a bit further. I’ve already shown the sense in which entire states are irrelevant when it comes to the presidential outcome. But even if we look at a particular state that is decisive, we can still say that the individual voters in that state have no effect, considered one person in isolation.

For example, continuing our narrative from above, the pro-Hillary people in California can think, “Wow I’m so glad our state turned out for civil liberties and stopped that fascist from getting into the White House!” But if any individual California voter thinks, “I’m so glad I missed an hour of work to go vote for Hillary!” then that person is deluded.

In our scenario, suppose 8 million Californians voted for Clinton, while 5 million voted for Trump. (I’m ignoring third parties for simplicity.) If any individual voter had switched his or her vote, it obviously would not have affected the outcome: all 55 of California’s electors would have voted for Clinton in the Electoral College.

Indeed, only in the ridiculous scenario in which the popular vote in your state is decided by a margin of 1 or 0, will your individual vote matter. In other words, so long as the candidate who wins in your state has a margin of victory of 2 votes or more, then it didn’t matter how YOU voted. You could have changed your vote, or stayed home, and the election outcome would have been the same.

“BUT WHAT IF EVERYBODY THOUGHT LIKE THAT?!?!”

My discussion above is pretty standard stuff for an economist, who are always thinking “on the margin” even when their conclusions do not line up with conventional wisdom. Not surprisingly, normal people freak out when I talk like this.

The biggest objection is to recoil at my crude, calculated approach, and to say that people should do things “on principle.” For example, suppose you see a guy passed out on a park bench with his wallet hanging out of his pocket. Should you steal it, knowing that if you don’t, somebody else will? Some immoral economist could argue that “on the margin” you’re not hurting the guy, because somebody else would take his wallet, but clearly there’s an important sense in which you must keep your own conscience clear, regardless of how others act and regardless of whether you “change the outcome.”

Immanuel Kant famously posited the Categorical Imperative, which says that you ought to obey rules that you can consistently wish others to obey. Even more famously, Jesus posited the golden rule.

I have no problem with any of this. Indeed, as a Christian I often follow moral rules that in a sense are “tilting at windmills,” but I do it because I want to maintain my own conscience amidst a crazy world.

But how does that justify voting “strategically”? If you are going to vote out of principle, then vote for someone who actually represents your values. It makes no sense at all to “hold your nose” and “vote for the lesser of two evils,” if you think you’re acting on principle.

No, the only sense it would make to “vote strategically” for someone you actually despise, is if you thought your vote individually would affect the outcome.

Yet we’ve already demonstrated above that your vote WON’T actually affect the outcome. You personally have no influence whatsoever over who the next president is, at least insofar as we’re considering your action in the voting booth. So there is no justification for voting for a person you don’t think is actually the best human on planet earth to be president.

Let me put it to you like this. Perhaps you think it’s silly to vote for someone you actually respect in November, because you are arguing, “Well gee Murphy if EVERYBODY did that then Hillary/Trump would win…” In that case, I want you to really analyze your own statement. If EVERYBODY voted for your ideal candidate, then your ideal candidate would WIN.

CONCLUSION

Please think twice before saying something like the following:

  • “A vote for the Libertarian Party is a vote for Hillary!”
  • “A vote for the Green Party is a vote for Trump!”
  • “I don’t want to waste my vote on a third party!”

And if you are really feeling radical, consider following my example. I haven’t voted for years. This system is obviously rigged, designed to give Americans the illusion of choice when really both candidates in the two major parties are serving the same interests. Call these special interests what you will–the military-industrial complex, the international bankers, the New World Order–but clearly U.S. presidential elections are an enormous theatrical production, designed to keep the masses bickering over silly trivialities while the important issues (like the Federal Reserve and U.S. military in the Middle East) are off the table.

The function of periodic elections is to give the appearance that Americans have actually endorsed the monstrosities of the welfare-warfare State. If more of us stopped participating in this rigged game, that alleged “legitimacy” would appear more and more dubious.