To Vote or Not to Vote: That Is the Question

To vote, or not to vote? This is the first, and last, question any voter should ask themselves. Is voting worth your time and effort? Does the act of voting, and the outcome of the electoral process, create value for you?

The Election Is a Process, Who Wins Is an Outcome, and Your Vote Is an Action

In every decision you make, that outcome has value. And that value can, and often is, affected by the actions you take to achieve that outcome.

For example, imagine that you want candy, and that candy is going to make your day feel really good (let’s be honest, comfort food is called “comfort” food for a reason). Now, you could walk four blocks to a nearby convenience store, and spend two dollars for a nice large piece of sweet, sweet, candy. Or, there is an unattended baby in a stroller outside your office, with the exact same (unopened) candy bar in hand.

Now, in both scenarios you can get pretty much the same piece of candy. Same outcome, same value, right? Not necessarily. You either have to spend time and money to get it from the convenience store, or you could save that time and money … by stealing from a baby. Obviously, the action impacts the value of the outcome (for the worse — unless you hate babies, in which case I suppose there could be a twisted scenario where that might be your preferred route, but I’m not going there today).

So, voting itself can be inherently important to the value of an election’s outcome. Even if you don’t believe your vote will have a direct impact, the act of voting can be itself a source of value for you. But what if voting does not create value for you, and is instead a burden? Or what if the value of voting is offset by the outcome of the election?

Should You Vote, or Not Vote?

What is the inherent value of voting? What benefits does it bring? What costs does it extract? Whether or not you should vote depends upon the inherent value of voting (for example, how much you like/dislike a candidate, and how much you like/dislike the process of voting) and the outcome of that vote. The below “Should I Vote?” chart defines three scenarios where you should vote, three where it’s debatable, and three where you should abstain from voting.

“Should I Vote?” Chart


In these three scenarios, you should vote because it’ll produce net positive value for you. “Vote! Win-win!” has the highest possible value, whereas “Vote!” gains its value through either voting’s inherent value or due to the outcome of voting. Also, you don’t have to (only) find value in voting for your candidate, as you can also find value in voting against a candidate that you dislike.

Maybe Vote

In these three scenarios, whether you should vote or not really depends upon how you feel about voting compared to the value of your vote’s outcome.

Don’t Vote

In these three scenarios, you shouldn’t vote because it’ll produce a net negative value for you. So, instead of voting, do something else that will create more value for you.

How Can Voting Cause Harm?

I find this idea to be very counter-intuitive, because even when all of your options suck you still have, at the least, the ability to choose the least bad option. So, why would you not choose? Why would you not vote? Well, to vote or not to vote is a choice in itself. And there can be situations where choosing to vote is worse than not voting.

For example, imagine a despot is running for election, and you could only vote for that despot. To vote would be tacit approval for that regime, and since you don’t have a choice you’d probably hate the act of voting. So, would you want to vote, or would you rather stay at home, maybe create low voter-turnout, and do something else more worthwhile (assuming there is no penalty for not voting)? Thus, your choice not to vote can be an extra-electoral symbol of disapproval, one that is more valuable to you than the act of voting.

Another way that voting can be worse than not voting is when people criticize and/or punish you based on how you vote. This is an example of vote-specific value destruction: either the inherent value of voting is diminished, and/or the value of the outcomes you would normally favor is reduced.

For example, imagine someone tells you to make sure that you go vote. They then ask whom you are going to vote for. After you answer, with “the wrong” candidate, you immediately get a tirade about how stupid, ignorant, and/or wrong you are (see, “Should You Vote Third Party?”). If successful, they might convince you to ether switch votes, or not vote at all.

However, when people attempt this course of action, it can backfire and create value in the act of resisting coercion and social bullying. Furthermore, this vote-specific value manipulation can also be used for the opposite effect, where someone praises or rewards you for your choice, which can actually increase the value your vote (for that candidate).

So, even though voting is about options, there are times where voting might actually be worse than not voting. Remember, your first, and last, choice when it comes to voting is whether or not you should vote.

A Ballot Is Rarely Only One Candidate or Issue

Here is a very important caveat to the “Should I Vote” chart. Ballots are rarely about one candidate, so you must weigh your primary purpose for voting against the other items on the ballot that you can have an impact upon. It only takes one worthwhile candidate or issue to convince you that voting, in this case, is very much worth it.

That being said, if you look at the “Should I Vote” chart, and come to the conclusion that for every item on the ballot, you will lose value, why would you go and vote when you could instead use your time and energy on other fulfilling actions?

Voting Is Only One Process

Always remember that voting is just one part of the American democratic process. Voting is an action towards achieving a specific set of goals. When you vote for someone, you expect them to work towards your goals, or at least not damage them as much as the other candidates.

What that means is you can achieve your goals through other means. You can volunteer. You can find employment in the right field. You can protest, and draw attention to ignored needs. You can organize your community. You can even run for public office to become the agent of change to reach those goals.

The beauty of voting is that it largely works. The ugly side of voting is that it can be overwhelming, and obfuscate us from seeing the other ways in which we can reach our goals. This is important for both those that believe and don’t believe that voting makes a difference. Always remember that you have other options outside of the voting process.

In other words, American democracy doesn’t only start and end with voting.

A Parting Critique, and Recommended Reading

What I have written about, above, is purely about answering the question: does it make sense for you to vote? However, I have not delved into the social implications of this question, because the choice not to vote can be taken as social defection and free-riding.

For example, if I decide that voting doesn’t make sense for me, then I am letting other people bear the “burden” (as I see it) of voting, and I am letting them decide the fate of my political affairs. Instead, I could use the time I’d otherwise waste voting to go have some fun, or make some money.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the broader impact of voting and the importance of elections, check out social choice theory. It takes this article’s question and examines it in aggregate. If you are interested in learning more, the Wikipedia article “Social Choice Theory” is a good place to start. If you want a bit more to chew on, “The Possibility of Social Choice (PDF)” by Amartya K. Sen (1998) is a really interesting Nobel Lecture on this topic.

If you’d like more resources, or if you have some you’d like to recommend, contact me.

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