Let us take the example of voting in a U.S. presidential election. If one lives in a blue state for which the outcome of the vote is known to always favor the Democratic candidate, is there any reason that would prompt one to vote Republican, or vice versa?

I have always heard the argument that for Republicans in, say California or Massachusetts, it is essentially pointless to bother voting at all. The same would apply to Democrats in Texas or Oklahoma. Is there a counter-argument to this claim?

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    I'm from the 70s. Why would I vote republican in a democratic stronghold like texas? and why would I vote democrat in a republican stronghold like california? Feb 3 '14 at 20:05
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    Doesn't exactly the same argument apply to voting for the predominant party? Your guy is going to win anyway. Feb 3 '14 at 23:28
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    Good question. I live in NJ and I never voted because I knew a red vote wouldn't matter here anyway.
    – Shahar
    Feb 3 '14 at 23:43
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    Seems obvious that one should still vote - because you don't know what others will do with 100% certainty... and if everyone thinks as you do then you would be doomed.
    – d'alar'cop
    Feb 5 '14 at 16:44
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    I live in a mostly one-party state, and I'm proud of my consistent protest votes for federal offices and local chief executive as well. When things go wrong (and something always does), I have the satisfaction of knowing that I never supported the bum in question.
    – Foo Bar
    Aug 9 '16 at 15:26

Forget states that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. Even in a state that's extremely closely matched in terms of political opinion, your vote still has a vanishingly small chance of making a difference. First of all you have to consider the probability that your state will make a difference as to who wins the electoral college, which would only happen if the electoral vote totals are very close, and then you have to multiply that by the probability that your single vote can make the difference in who wins your state, which would only happen if there's an exact tie. See this paper for the results of such a calculation.

The bottom line is that it's an extremely small probability, which depending on your state could be as low as one in a hundred billion, and even the state where a person has the highest probability, the probability of your vote making a difference would only be one in ten million. As a point of comparison, the average person is only willing to pay a dollar to avoid a one in ten million chance of death, so assuming you value your survival over the outcome of the Presidential election, the von Neumann-Morgenstern rationality axioms state that it's irrational to vote if it costs more than a dollar to do so (for instance in terms of gas costs and the cost of your time).

There has in fact been a persistent puzzle among economists, especially the variety that believe that all human behavior is rational, concerning why it is that people vote in such large numbers when their vote almost never make a difference, not only at the Presidential level, but even at the level of local elections. One theory is that people are simply behaving irrationally, for instance because they overestimate the probability that their vote will matter.

Another theory is that people do it not merely because of the chance of changing the outcome of an election, but because it's an act of civic duty, although economist Steve Landsburg, in his popular book "The Armchair Economist", counters "But that ignores the fact that voting takes time away from other more productive acts of civic duty. You can spend 15 minutes casting an essentially meaningless vote, or you can spend the same 15 minutes returning shopping carts from the parking lot to the front of the grocery store. In the second case, you'll have actually made the world a better place."

Yet another theory (articulated in the paper I linked to) is that the outcome of an election, especially for President, matters quite a lot to people because it affects the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, so the low probability is made up for by the high reward. That raises the question, though, of why most people aren't more politically active in a lot of other ways.

To my mind, perhaps the most plausible explanation is that people vote out of a Kantian ethic. In simple terms, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative states that you shouldn't do an action unless it would be good if everyone did it. So the argument against not voting would be that if everyone listened to the advice of economists and stayed home, then a given person's vote would actually make a difference, so for that reason you should vote. Economists tend to be skeptical of that kind of reasoning, because they're generally utilitarians in their ethics, not Kantians. (Landsburg, for instance, says that it's "as true and as irrelevant as the assertion that if voting booths were spaceships, voters could travel to the moon. Everyone else does not stay home. The only choice that an individual voter faces is whether or not to vote, given that tens of millions of others are voting.") But I think the average person is more sympathetic to Kantian reasoning.

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    Since you theoretically only vote once, does it make more sense to just convince others (who would vote against you) not to vote? (Thereby making your vote worth more?)
    – user1873
    Feb 5 '14 at 3:32
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    @user1873 I'm not sure what your point is. Feb 5 '14 at 3:37
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    So... Don't listen to economists? Ok.
    – endolith
    Dec 15 '16 at 21:42
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    You missed the main reason behind voting: to signal discontent or political preference, even if it does not affect the outcome.
    – Anixx
    Jan 12 '18 at 11:17

The other answers omit the obvious - while the popular vote has no effect on official election outcome, it has a GREAT deal of effect on political discourse, and the optics.

Witness 2000, where the important story wasn't the hanging chads, but the divergence between popular and electoral votes.

UPDATE 2016/12: While this answer was posted in 2014, US-post-2016-Presidential-election brou-haha with "Clinton won the popular vote" 100% vindicated this answer.

Also, great political thinkers[1] of our times (well, slightly earlier times) have successfully imprinted in the consciousness of a LOT of people the importance of voting.

[1] Citation: "Vote Early and Vote Often". - Al Capone. (or not)

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    @KeshavSrinivasan - unlike electoral "first past the post" vote, in popular vote the margin matters and not only the winner; which makes every vote equally important.
    – user4012
    Feb 5 '14 at 16:33
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    @KeshavSrinivasan - most people routinely blow $8 or a lot more on a lot WORSE "investments", like seeing a romcom movie or going to a restaurant to eat food that would take less time and money at home, or smoke, or go to a bar. I am not sure why you see voting as such an unexpected behavior, given that "feeling good about doing ones civic duty" is an intangible benefit that is of definite non-zero utility function to many people.
    – user4012
    Feb 5 '14 at 18:09
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    Yes, if you think people vote for Kantian reasons, that's the same conclusion I reached in my answer. Most people, including myself, don't subscribe to the utilitarian ethic that economists subscribe to. Instead, they subscribe to some form or other of deontological ethics. (Kantian ethics is a particular brand of deontological ethics.) Feb 5 '14 at 18:18
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    @KeshavSrinivasan - you don't seem to understand utilitarianism I think. Intangibles matter. The fact that I am doing my part to prevent a general problem poses utility for me, even if it isn't of direct monerary value; as does any self-knowledge that I have done something right. This has been bred into me by centuries of humans evolving to value "moral" decisions, because those who don't aren't going to obtain a stable equilibrum and will lose as a society.
    – user4012
    Feb 5 '14 at 18:21
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    There's a difference between utilty and utilitarianism. I didn't claim that people don't derive utility from doing moral acts. I meant that people don't believe in the philosophy of utilitarianism, which states that you ought to do that which maximizes the total utility of everyone in society, regardless of what means you use. That's an ethical system which is popular among economists, but not among the general public. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, a system of ethics which says that only the consequences of your actions matter for morality. Feb 5 '14 at 18:29

This question implies the unnecessary premise that rational people should (or do) only vote to "win", where winning means to have one's preferred candidate prevail in the present election. That is, the question assumes there's no past history as such, or future (beyond the current election) that the rational voter should consider.

In iterative voting systems, (i.e. Democracy, et al.), voting sends a signal to the next cycle's voters. Consider this simple table, showing dominant Party A and losing Party Z, (given a fixed population of 100 eligible voters), over 5 cycles:

| Cycle | A  | Z  | Non_voters |
|     1 | 33 |  1 |         66 |
|     2 | 33 |  3 |         64 |
|     3 | 40 |  5 |         55 |
|     4 | 39 | 10 |         51 |
|     5 | 41 | 20 |         39 |

Given such a trend Party Z might eventually prevail. Or to forestall such a trend, Party A might modify its platform to include some of Z's issues and proposals. In either case, the iterative system allows the Z voters to change public policy, even when they lose.

Curiously, the more voters who don't bother to vote, the more power those who do vote acquire. That is, if only half of eligible voters vote in a cycle, those 50% in effect exert the power ceded by the absent 50% as well. In a sense, each voter in that 50% enjoys 2 times the immediate voting power they'd otherwise not exert had 100% of the electorate voted.

Iterated votes draw attention to the objects voted for, and influence others, not unlike how a song influences others the more it is sung. This works against the "winner" voters, just as some songs played ad nauseum induce weary listeners to seek out different music, dominating political platforms may prevail so successfully that the resulting laws eventually chastise their supporters more than any opponents could.


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (1835):

“Princes had, so to speak, turned violence into a physical thing but our democratic republics have made it into something as intellectual as the human will it intends to restrict. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, in order to attack the spirit, crudely struck the body and the spirit escaped free of its blows, rising gloriously above it. But in democratic republics, tyranny does not behave in that manner; it leaves the body alone and goes straight to the spirit. No longer does the master say: “You will think as I do or you will die”; he says: “You are free not to think like me, your life, your property, everything will be untouched but from today you are a pariah among us. You will retain your civic privileges but they will be useless to you, for if you seek the votes of your fellow citizen, they will not grant you them and if you simply seek their esteem, they will pretend to refuse you that too. You will retain your place amongst men but you will lose the rights of mankind. When you approach your fellows, they will shun you like an impure creature; and those who believe in your innocence will be the very people to abandon you lest they be shunned in their turn. Go in peace; I grant you your life but it is a life worse than death.”

For those in the minority, voting is act of defiance against the cruelest tyrant of all — the tyranny of the majority. Absent the absolute monarch who can imprison him, the man in a democracy has only the vicissitudes of the majority against which to rail. The vote against the majority can soothe the soul as the only form of protest which he has left.

  • If only soothing the soul was enough to make one feel counted. In our system of "representative democracy" we are essentially a non-factor and the votes practically mean nothing. I always feel they should just remove the word democracy and just call it what it is, an Oligarchy :) Feb 3 '14 at 20:37

Voting isn't about winning, but supporting the candidate you believe is best for the job. Therefore, if you live in a state that is dominated by one party, and you don't like the candidate, don't give him/her your vote. You might not be with the popularity contest, but elections are not popularity contests, they are job interviews and you are one of the deciding bosses.

On a more practical level, going into an election year? Got an issue you really feel strongly about? Ring up the office of the incumbent and press the issue... leverage the fact that you did not vote for him last cycle but your issue is important to you and you want to vote for people who agree with you on it.

Even more practical issue, you have a likely Moore Situation (pun fully intended). In the case where the popular party candidate is a terrible person (i.e. Roy Moore), you can count on the dejected party members to not vote for him in force. Moore ended up losing not because of a surge in Democrat voting but by Republican turnout being half that of Donald Trump. It could also be unpopular party policies in that locality, Massachusetts' special election in 2010 gave Ted Kennedy's senate seat to Republican Scott Brown because the state already had health care similar to (then-proposed legislation) Obamacare and did not want more of it. As of this writing, popular Maryland Governor Larry Hogan(R) was elected over the incumbent Lt. Governor, (who assumed he would get it by dint of having a D follow his name and a pulse), because the incumbent administration had raised taxes and fees in the state every year for 8 years and the Maryland people were fed up. Going into his re-election, Hogan holds the distinction of being the most popular governor in the nation AND the most popular in state history.

It does happen that states flip for a small period, and when and why they flip is hard to predict. But it does happen and more often then not, its when the popular party gets so cocky that they feel they can nominate any lousy candidate they want and still have enough votes to hold the safe state.

  • Can you support this answer with references to expert sources? Jan 10 '18 at 19:54
  • @indigochild, Please specify at least one statement in hszmv's answer that would benefit from a reference to an expert source.
    – agc
    Jan 12 '18 at 11:17
  • How about the thesis, "Voting isn't about winning, but supporting the candidate you believe is best for the job." That's more of a normative statement than anything. Without support it doesn't belong on this site, because it isn't factual. Jan 12 '18 at 16:32
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    decision that is at issue on the ballot. Thus in this sense, the "Voted into office or out of office" is not the applicable definition for this conversation, but the act of an individual response to a ballot issue. Thus, the act of voting, per OP's original question, is the act of expressing one's opinion on an at issue question and not about "winning" the collective decision of all voting individuals. In the interest of some good nature humor, shall I next outline what the meaning of the usage of the verb "Is" is? Or does this suffice?
    – hszmv
    Jan 12 '18 at 17:48
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    @indigochild, Re "you are basing ... off the dictionary": Not really -- rather hszmv's answer is self evident given standard usages that dictionaries coincidentally happen to compile into a useful reference, but the answer would be self evident even if there were no such thing as dictionaries.
    – agc
    Jan 12 '18 at 21:04

I'll risk my few reputation points and speak to the unloved elephant in the room:

You can down-vote my answer, but you can't down-vote a candidate or party.

On what ballot have you seen "Check the party you would prefer to lose"? Even if you're one of those spiteful "third party" trolls who deny the Dems their God-given right to all non-GOP votes, you STILL aren't voting "against" anyone. (I'm not trying to pick on Dems, but I honestly have never heard a Republican lay claim to 3rd party votes.)

So the original question is illogical. I would vote "against" it remaining open since, despite the mass-hallucination of its validity, it is factually, provably not based in reality... but in the name of fighting the good fight, here's an explanation of voting:

5 + 4 = 9

Controversy aside, the sum is 9. The 5 and 4 each contribute to the sum, but neither one gets to BE the sum. That doesn't mean their values don't matter, but if 5 expects the sum to be "YOU WIN, NUMBER 5!" then 5 doesn't understand math. And if we throw in a 3? It's an actual operand, just like the rest (no, not a traitor operand). Crazy.

"Yes, but we have a highly democratic 2-choice system, so either a Republican or a Dem wins, not an average of both of them, so you're dumb."

Don't confuse an election with governance. One is an event, the other is a clusterf... a process. Despite our eagerness to gamble away all checks and balances just for that "next big win where MY guy wins and dictatorial control is a good thing!", we still have them. We also still have countless representatives of all stripes, at all levels, and they actually make decisions. It's honestly not the president calling all shots.

"So should I vote or not? What does my vote signify if my guy isn't gonna be boss?"

From the egocentric viewpoint a vote means:

"My opinion is super-valid, so I personally have the power/duty to direct the fate of humanity. If it doesn't turn out right I have failed."

The media and entrenched parties may benefit from this lie our egos tell us, but Democracy does not. Voting is not about your preferences or mine, it's about our statistical mean. That's like, not just my opinion, man, that's math. It's kinda the point of having everyone vote on the same thing, instead of just holding a vote-lottery where one person gets to decide. No vote "matters", but all votes matter. The votes of "winners" as well as "losers" will all be counted, impact discourse, etc. If you can't accept that your vote will be one among many, and might only count as such...? Well, then:

TLDR; "Math is stupid. Don't vote."

I guess that should be at the top. Sorry.

  • 1
    I honestly have never heard a Republican lay claim to 3rd party votes. What about G.H.Bush supporters claims about Ross Perot's influence on the 1992 presidential election ? fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Evargalo
    Jan 12 '18 at 8:44
  • It's nice to have a variety of answers. Perhaps omit the satirical TLDR bit however, as some humorless heroes may take it literally, or may have. (I wish SEP had a feature to sort from lowest voted to highest. Perhaps somebody can write a Greasemonkey script or something...)
    – agc
    Jan 12 '18 at 11:08
  • 3 down-votes in defense of the fantasy, but still no explanation of how a person can "vote against" a party. Nor a single counter-argument or hole poked in my logic. Fittingly lazy for a "political" discussion these days. Jan 12 '18 at 17:39
  • So the GOP claims 3rd party votes too, and my TLDR could be confusing. Valid details, but how about my actual answer? Philipp, your borrowed response is that my statements are so nonsensical that they can't be proven or disproven. Really? Simply tell me how you can "vote against" a party? That simple. Otherwise, the OP's question remains a wide-spread, well-loved hallucination. Nothing is more of a trigger than shining light on a well-loved lie, so I fully expect a shower of unsupported down-votes. Jan 12 '18 at 19:10
  • @ChangeMachine, The full vote tally isn't visible without a certain number of points: out of 5 votes I'm currently the sole upvoter. When the majority is in error, downvotes may offer the best answers.
    – agc
    Jan 12 '18 at 20:23

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