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Don't Waste Your Vote

by Steven J. Alexander

Many people hear about the Libertarian Party and say "I don't want to waste my vote." That's quite understandable and commendable; voting is the second most important thing in a free country like ours.

But what does it mean when we say "don't waste your vote?" How should we vote so it won't be wasted?

We waste money when we spend it for something we did not really want. We waste time when we use it for an activity that doesn't do us any good. We waste our breath when we talk to somebody without convincing him. How do we waste our vote?

Some people say "I won't waste my vote on Jones because he has no chance to win." Does this make sense? Is voting a matter of predicting the winners?

In 1984, Mondale ran for president and got 37 million votes. Everyone knew that Reagan would be reelected. Did those millions of Americans who voted for Mondale all waste their votes? What should they have done?

In 1976, Reagan and Ford were competing for the presidential nomination. The Republican Party chose Ford because they "knew" Reagan had no chance to win.

Ford lost. Four years later, Reagan won. Do we really know who has no chance to win?

In 1948, everyone "knew" that Harry Truman had no chance to win. He was way behind in the polls. Yet Truman won. Did the people who voted for Truman waste their votes? Did the people who voted against Truman waste their votes?

But why should we vote for somebody just because he (or she) is going to win? Do we get a prize if we can guess the winner ahead of time?

People who voted for Reagan got a prize: four more years of Reagan. People who voted for Mondale got ... four more years of Reagan. People who voted for David Bergland, the Libertarian candidate for president, got four more years of Reagan.

No matter how we voted, we got the same thing. Even nonvoters got the same thing. Voting is not like horse racing; guessing right doesn't change the payoff.

Some people say "I won't waste my vote on Jones because my vote couldn't help him win; he's too far behind." Does this make sense? Does a vote for one candidate have more value than a vote for another candidate?

In most congressional districts, the incumbent almost always wins. In some cases, nobody even challenges the incumbent. We waste our votes if we vote for the incumbent; he has no chance to lose! Our vote has no effect on the outcome of that election.

Let's imagine a more even election campaign of Smith versus Smythe versus Jones. In a poll, the month before the vote, Smith gets 45%, Smythe gets 40%, and Jones (the Libertarian) gets 15%.

Jones has no chance to win, right? A vote for Jones is wasted because it can't save his campaign. Instead, we should vote for Smith or Smythe because that could tip the balance. Right?

Wrong. How often does a candidate win by one vote? How often does one vote tip the balance? The only case I know was Tom Tryon in Calaveras County. He became county supervisor by one vote. Tom Tryon is a Libertarian.

If the election goes 45-40-15 like the poll, Smith will win no matter how we vote. He will win by thousands or millions of votes. A vote for Jones is no more wasted than a vote for Smythe; both of them lost, or a vote for Smith, who can win with or without us.

This is depressing. Why should we vote at all? We don't get a special prize for picking the winner, nor can we individually determine the outcome of an election.

Let's try a different approach. Why do we vote? What does it mean? Why do we have elections? Most people know the difference between elections and horse races. They don't vote just to pick the winners. They study the issues and vote to help decide the future of our country. They say "I don't want to waste my vote, I want it to have the most effect for the good of society."

Elections serve two purposes. First they decide which candidates will hold office. Second they inform those officeholders as to the wishes of the people. Also, let's remember that we have elections every year, and we all get to vote over and over again. A voting strategy should focus on the long term trends. Sometimes, during a campaign, we think that the world ends on election day. Actually, the election merely sets the foundation for the future, including the election after it.

Let's imagine the election campaign of Smith versus Smythe versus Jones. Smith and Smythe are close in the polls with Jones trailing behind. Smith and Smythe each have a chance to win. Jones has "no chance to win." (We think.)

Who should get our vote?

Let's add some details to the example. Suppose we agree with most of Jones's positions and a few of Smythe's positions. On the other hand, we believe Smith is wrong on all counts. Are these facts relevant to our choice?

Smythe has the best chance to beat Smith, so we could vote for Smythe to avoid letting Smith win. This is the "lesser of two evils" strategy. It minimizes our chances of a very bad outcome, but it also minimizes our chances of a very good outcome. No guts, no glory. We waste money when we spend it for something we didn't really want. Do we waste our vote that way?

Jones has the beliefs and principles closest to our own, so we could vote for Jones to best reflect our opinion. This is the "vote your conscience" or the "send a message" strategy. It means we are voting for somebody who is unlikely to win, but we hope to build a foundation for long term improvement in society. Which strategy should we use? Which strategy will have the most effect for the good of society? (We could vote for Smith and hope he changes his views, but that's a risky approach.)

The important part of elections is not just who wins, but also what he (or she) does in office. If our choice wins, will that have the most effect for the good of society?

If we choose Smythe, the lesser of two evils, and he wins, what will he do? Will he emphasize the issues we agree on, or will he emphasize the positions we don't like? Will he try to attract voters from Smith's camp by adopting some of Smith's positions? We waste time when we use it for an activity that doesn't do us any good. If our candidate wins, and we live to regret it, have we wasted our vote?

No politician thinks of himself as the lesser of two evils. Politicians tend to think of themselves as statesmen and historic figures. They assume that their victories mean mandates and their opponents' victories are aberrations. Yet our elections are heavily focused on choosing officeholders and not on discovering the wishes of the people. If voting our conscience is not fashionable, can we expect integrity from our officeholders? If our voting strategies don't look beyond the election, can we expect our officeholders to care about anything besides the next election?

Let's remember that elections come every year. Do we want to vote for the lesser of two evils every year, year after year, for our whole lives? If Smythe wins elections every time, he has no reason to change. We waste our breath when we talk to somebody without convincing him. Smythe can get our vote without heeding our wishes. He just has to strive to always be the second worst candidate.

This is not what democracy was meant to be. Is that a wasted vote?

If we choose Jones, and vote our conscience, several things happen. First, he probably loses anyway. Smith or Smythe are elected. But the election does more than choose a winner. It sends a message to the winner as to the wishes of the people. He is bound to notice those people who stood up and were counted for Jones. They didn't expect Jones to win, but they held strong beliefs and were true to them.

A voter who is steadfast and true to his or her beliefs will eventually win. A shortsighted voter who compromises for crumbs of the victor's banquet will have only stale crumbs to show for a lifetime of trying.

No Libertarian yet has been elected to national office or California state office. Yet, in the years since the party was formed, gold ownership became legal, military draft ended, proposition 13 passed and the tax revolt began, Reagan cut taxes, airlines were deregulated, banks were deregulated, railroads were deregulated, and trucking was deregulated.

We didn't do any of it. It was done by the Smiths and Smythes of the major parties. They know what it means when someone votes Libertarian. It means that ten more people wanted to, but thought it would waste their votes.

Voting Libertarian does us more good than the tally tells. It convinces the major parties to pay heed to our principles. It is not a wasted vote. The waste is to live a life in a free society, where we can speak and vote freely, and to have never spoken our minds.

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