Views: Does voting stand to reason?

Outside the pavement glistened with autumnal rain; inside students were sipping bad coffee. We were huddled in a red booth warming our hearts and digits following a dark walk after a depressing talk by Glenn Greenwald, a brilliant journalist whose life purpose is to remind us that government really is trying to pull a fast one on us.

That talk, paired with the recent federal election, led my trusty friend and I to dredge up the topic that divided us most: voting.

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Our debates always ended in an impasse. I’d try to convince him casting a ballot – even it if it meant spoiling one – was better than staying home. Voting is futile, he’d riposte.

Seeing as the civic election is less than two weeks away, I thought I’d revisit the debate once and for all. Begrudgingly, a quick trip to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy compels me to admit he’s not necessarily wrong, even if I am right.

First of all, it makes no sense to vote to change an outcome. If we consider voting to have an opportunity cost (we take time away from work or family – something with a direct benefit to us), and if the chance of breaking a tie is comparable to winning the lottery (research shows this to be true), then the cost of voting is a sure thing, while the likelihood of a benefit via tie break is miniscule. Voting, therefore, is neither functional nor rational.

We’re also by no means duty-bound to vote. Vote because we owe a debt to society? Because it’s a civic virtue? Because refraining renders us complicit when government acts unjustly? The onus is on these moralists to prove voting is the only way to achieve those outcomes. Why not corral all your friends at the voting booth to repay that debt and then some? What about all manner of other civic virtues, like showing up to council meetings, or petitioning the government to make a specific change? How about taking a government to court if it’s corrupt?

And then there’s my favourite argument, which I’m dismayed to discover is also faulty. It goes something like this: Tyranny would befall us if we each made an individual decision not to vote. It’s faulty because, sure, it’s the case we may face calamity if nobody voted, but that doesn’t mean we’re hosed if a bunch of us opt out. There will still be a winner.

Which leads me to the dullest, gloomiest, but as yet untoppled alternative to the aforementioned reasons, which I have made up and am calling the competitive argument.

It goes something like this: vote for the voter turnout bragging rights.

It also stands to reason that if a citizen does that, they may as well take a few minutes to learn about the candidates. Along the way they may learn a few things about government process, too. And rather than wasting time defending democracy on a cold autumn evening, they may find themselves doing something a bit more productive, like participating in it. Q.E.D.

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