no, the fact that my vote doesn’t swing the election doesn’t render it meaningless

Julian Sanchez upbraids Matt Yglesias for upbraiding those who advocate third-party voting in safe states. Here’s Yglesias:

I’ve noticed that various anti-Obama pro-third-party arguments on the Internet proceed with an annoying two step. Usually the headline and the lede of the piece will be very focused on Obama, the evils of Obama, and the braindeadness of the Obamabots but then the argument will employ as a lemma something like it doesn’t matter who you vote for because your vote won’t make a difference anyway….

“Why I’m Voting For Jill Stein” or “Why I’m Voting For Gary Johnson” is, qua article, an effort to persuade other people to do the same thing. A persuasive argument that takes as one of its premises its own failure to persuade is inherently problematic.

And here’s Sanchez’s (I think persuasive) reply:

I don’t think this works. Consider the type of thought experiment you sometimes encounter in ethics: There are two groups of people in danger: Group A consists of 100 people who will die unless a rescue effort involving at least five rescuers is mounted, while Group B consists of 10 people in the same situation. Each potential rescuer can only join one effort. If you think you’re likely to be the marginal fifth rescuer, or are advising that person on what to do, then it seems pretty clear that (other things equal) you ought to join the mission to rescue Group A and advise others to do the same….

If everyone were certain to follow the rule of action you stipulated for this case, and there were no coordination or information about what others were doing, you’d similarly select the rule that says you should try to help Group A. However… it also makes sense to factor in what others are realistically doing, because ideally you’d like to see both objectives accomplished, and 110 people saved rather than just 100. If, for example, you see many dozens of people already mobilizing to save Group A, while only one or two are headed for Group B, what you ought morally to do is (again, I think pretty clearly) join the mission to save Group B and call for others to do likewise, provided that it is sufficiently improbable that you will persuade so many people that the initially oversubscribed mission to save Group A now fails.

Quite right.


Yglesias also says that the electoral math is much less set in stone than people may think:

Articles that posit some kind of difference in behavior between residents of swing and non-swing states are even worse in this regard. In 2004, John Kerry came within about 60,000 votes of carrying Ohio and the election. But he also got less than 55% of the vote in California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Which is to say that an even modestly successful effort to organize third party defections in non-swing states would rapidly turn the majority of those states into swing constituencies.

Maybe. I for one think that might be a good thing, and might cause major parties to sit up and take notice. But it also ignores the fact that third party candidates frequently take equally from both sides, or from people who would otherwise not vote. I.e., let’s say, for argument’s sake, that third party candidates got 5% of the vote in California. Assume that without them California would go 55% Obama, 45% Romney. The presence of the third-party candidates, however, is unlikely to shift the math for the major party candidates to a 50-50 split, because some of those votes (i.e., the votes of people who usually don’t vote) wouldn’t have gone to either candidate, and the others would not be drawn uniformly out of Obama’s pool. Ron Paul Republicans, in particular, might well choose to vote in large numbers for Johnson. But, as I noted last week and as is shown in the above-linked article, even the Green Party drew substantial numbers of “Republican” voters in 2000. I should also point out that using John Kerry’s numbers in 2004 is sort of dirty pool on Yglesias’s part, as John Kerry had all the charisma and drawing power of a wet mophead. So many likely Democratic voters simply stayed home. President Obama’s 2008 numbers in many of the states mentioned (especially on the West Coast) were much stronger.

In short, a strong third-party showing does not necessarily take California out of the “safe” Democratic column. But what it might do is shake the Democratic party’s complacency about its coalition. And, as I said, I think that might be a good thing.

And that’s not counting the Zompocalypse theory — about which, I grant, reasonable minds may differ.

For all these reasons, I think Yglesias’s statement that “under no circumstances does it make sense to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson” is more than a little flawed.


UPDATE: And of course, none of this takes into account voting third-party in a state Obama has no chance of winning. If you vote in South Carolina or Oklahoma, there is literally no downside to your third-party vote.

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One Response to no, the fact that my vote doesn’t swing the election doesn’t render it meaningless

  1. Pingback: also, Matt Yglesias can bite me | The Handsome Camel

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