Today I vote, and this evening I will schlep my two recycling bins to the curb for tomorrow morning’s recycling pickup. I don’t really believe in recycling, but I do it anyway, to avoid the awkward glances from friends and family. But I do believe in voting, even though, most of the time, I know very little about the candidates, and even though I recognize that, except in very unlikely circumstances, my vote will not make a difference to any election, large or small.
Not only do I not know much about the candidates, I am persuaded that it is rational for me — and for you, too, dear reader — to be mostly ignorant about them. I know only one person I’ll be voting for today, but that’s in part because I live in a sparsely populated state where everyone seems to know everyone else. I assume most people don’t know anyone on the ballot.
Then there’s my ignorance of the roles. What does the Arkansas state auditor do? Or the Washington County circuit clerk? Frankly, I can only guess. The Arkansas state auditor . . audits . . something . . . for the state of Arkansas. The Washington county circuit clerk . . . goes around (circuits?) the county of Washington . . . clerking . . . .
If I ever learn what these electable positions require, it will only be because someone takes me aside to explain, in a thousand words or less, what the person does. It won’t be because I read a book about it. I don’t have time for that.
I don’t know whether I used to be embarrassed about my ignorance; regardless, I’m sure not embarrassed about it now. You learn about the Arkansas commissioner of state lands. I’m focused on filling up my car with gasoline and having money left over for food. It’s the division of labor.
There’s another reason why it’s hard to get motivated to vote. Let’s be honest: Our votes most likely will not matter anyway. Most races are not close, and some races have only one contestant.
The probability that my vote will make a difference is vanishingly small. Even in a small race, with a mere thousand votes cast, the outcome will not be 501 to 499. In any sizable race — one we think is important — the vote difference between winner and loser will be huge.
Why I Vote
So why do I vote? First, if I’m honest, I like the pageantry of it all. Granted, getting a ballot and going behind a voting machine is not the grandest of things, but it makes me happy. I enjoy the civic ritual of it all. It’s like the Fourth of July, without the fireworks.
Second, I love America, so I believe in participating in the work of her government. Most people do unglamorous work for our country; there are a handful of military fighter pilots, but plenty of people who support them. So too with voting. My work is unglamorous, but it is wrapped up in something grand. Sure, my vote will most likely not be determinative, but I cannot judge the worthwhileness of my endeavors merely by successful outcomes. Perhaps some of my best work is done when I am not looking to any possible outcome but am merely trying to do what is right.
Third, I like the philosophical work involved in voting. I read the ballot initiatives, and I read about them. People have taken months or years to produce them, and I get to assess and review them. I like doing crossword puzzles, and reading the ballot initiatives prompts me to think about the puzzles of governance. Some things are a quick and easy no for me, but other issues cause me to reflect seriously (though briefly!) on the issues facing us all. I know what I want to achieve for our state or country, but I am not always sure how to get there. I enjoy reading or talking to people with shared values who think we should go about things differently. Sometimes I vote in favor of something when I am not opposed to it failing, and sometimes I vote against something when I am not opposed to it passing. All in all, voting serves as a discovery process for me.
Fourth, we kid ourselves that our time is so valuable we cannot possibly vote. When we talk about the opportunity cost of voting, we need to be realistic with how we spend our time. Most Americans are not on the precipice of curing cancer only to be distracted by the call to vote. Most Americans do not exercise, watch way too much television, and are distracted by social media. So let’s not say that Americans have better things to do than vote. On the contrary, voting may be the one time they hurl themselves off the couch and waddle to their cars for a breath of fresh air. If Americans walk from their couches to their cars and from their cars to their polling places, voting may give them more exercise than any other day this week. They’ll be away from television, out in the fresh air, and they may even see an actual friend or neighbor, instead of a screen representation of one. That’s not a bad thing.
So go vote! And God bless America.