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One of the recurring themes of elections is the claim that it is our moral duty and obligation as citizens of a democracy to cast a vote and “make our voices heard.” The future of our great nation, we are repeatedly told, may very well depend on each of us making a choice between two individuals.
The problem with this logic is that we are offered an either/or. By agreeing we imply approval of not only these limited options, but also an endorsement of the future actions of the candidate we select, regardless of how closely that candidate matches our beliefs.
The irony of this is that despite the heated rhetoric, the two major party candidates often end up espousing opinions that reflect merely the polar ends of a fairly narrow band of policy options. This is because in two-party politics, the median voter always wins.
Across the political spectrum, average voters tend to fall in a standard bell curve on most issues. As long as there are only two candidates to choose from, the closer to the middle each candidate is, the more votes he or she will capture. If you know that the median voter defines every election going into the polls, though, it becomes clear that what your particular policy views matter even less than for whom your vote is cast.
In his book Public Choice, David Johnson explains that this is simply the nature of two-party politics.
“Political parties take nearly identical positions while trying to convince voters…that their policies are different.”[i]
Right up to Election Day, though, the party machines and special interest groups will be battling this perception. Economist Joseph Schumpeter refers to these efforts as attempts to create a “Manufactured Will” among voters.[ii] The rabid voter enthusiasm such groups tend to promote runs counter to what we have come to know about elections – our votes matter very little in this framework, and radical change is unlikely to take place either way.
“Collectively the right to vote is extremely valuable,” says Johnson, but “[t]he right to vote has little operational value to the individual, because a single vote has little probability of affecting the outcome of any election.”[iii]
So is there any point in voting whatsoever? Potentially. As Johnson clarifies, the median voter model falls apart outside the confines of a two-party system.[iv]
Voters uneasy with the choices before them should recognize that other options exist. Third parties – Green, Libertarian, Constitution, and the like – have been gaining increasing attention in recent elections. In part, this may be due to a growing awareness of the questionable value of voting for traditional candidates.
Voting for a third party candidate allows individuals to break free from the stranglehold of the median voter and actually cast votes based on what they believe. Once the average voter recognizes that his or her vote has virtually no impact on who wins an election and what the policy results of the decision
will be it becomes clear that making a choice on principle “counts” far more than voting for the sake of political expediency or to prevent the election of “the greater of two evils.”
Such votes also send a signal to politicians that they can no longer continue moving further toward the center of the political spectrum and expect to hold onto all of the voters to the right or left of their position.
Voting outside of the two-party system may allow unsatisfied voters out of a morality trap in which nobody really wins. Instead, they can embrace what it truly means to have their voice heard.
[i] Johnson, David B. Public Choice: An Introduction to the New Political Economy, (Mountain View, CA: Bristlecone Books, 1991) 239.
[ii] Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003) 263. Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=6eM6YrMj46sC.
[iii] Johnson, 134.
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