- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

In the primary election last March, only one out of every three registered voters in Chicago went to the polls — the city's lowest turnout on record for a presidential primary. A spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections lamented, “It's hard to overcome the idea that people think that their vote doesn't count.” What makes this belief especially hard to overcome is that it's true.

One of the durable superstitions of democratic societies is that every citizen should cast a ballot because each vote is important. In reality, in a big election, the chance that any one person will alter the outcome is approximately zero. So as far as determining the winner is concerned, dear reader, it makes absolutely no difference if you vote for one candidate or the other, or if you don't bother to vote at all.

It's considered bad taste to acknowledge this simple reality, but the math is impossible to dispute. In the 1996 election, some 95 million Americans cast votes for president. In my home state of Illinois, one of the bigger states in the country, nearly 4.3 million people voted, and the gap between the winner (Bill Clinton) and the loser (Bob Dole) amounted to 754,723 votes.

If you lived in Illinois, what difference could you have made? You personally could have increased that margin to 754,724 or cut it to 754,722. But that's about all. Even in the preposterously unlikely event that your vote was the one to deliver Illinois to Clinton or Dole, Clinton would still have had enough electoral votes from other states to win.

If you resided in a less populous state, your chances of affecting the result were slightly larger. In Wyoming, only 209,250 people voted the last time around. But the chance of the two candidates coming out tied is microscopic, even in a small state. And with only three electoral votes, Wyoming is rarely in a position to change history.

In local elections, of course, each vote carries more weight, and once in a while, a deadlock does occur. A few years ago, a coin flip decided the winner of the mayor's race in Crystal, N.D., after the two candidates each polled 29 votes. (The eventual loser might have won if his wife had bothered to vote. Or maybe not.)

But no presidential contest has ever come out in a perfect dead heat. So face it: You won't decide who will be our next president. The dilemma of potential Green Party voters looks painful, but it's really not. It's true that if millions of people who otherwise would vote for Al Gore choose instead to vote for Ralph Nader, the election might be thrown to George W. Bush. But none of us has a million votes; we each have only one.

So suppose I'm considering a vote for Nader instead of Gore. If millions of people vote for Nader instead of Gore, Bush may win. But if millions of people are going to do that, they'll do it regardless of what I do. And if no one else does that, again, my decision to do it anyway will likewise have no effect. So I might as well do whatever suits me.

Voting, you see, is a supremely impractical activity. It's not like choosing a church or a career or a political creed, where you make a choice and get what you choose. You will get the same president — the one chosen by 95 million of your fellow citizens — regardless of whether or how you vote.

That's undoubtedly why many Americans don't bother. Going to the polls involves some time and trouble, and you achieve nothing tangible for your effort. The real question is not why so many people don't vote but why so many people do.

The answer lies in the value of voting as a way of declaring your belief in democracy as the best form of government and accepting the obligations that go with citizenship in a free society. Not everything worth doing accomplishes something. Some things we do just because they show what we're about.

Casting a ballot is like singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Fourth of July event, or joining in “We Shall Overcome” at a civil rights march. Your singing doesn't really add anything: Anyone listening from a distance would hear the same thing whether you chime in or not. But adding your small voice to the chorus affirms your belief in something important, which is worth doing for yourself and for those observing you.

Voting is almost entirely a symbolic gesture, not one that gives you as an individual any real control over who is elected. But putting a ring on your spouse's finger at your wedding is also a symbolic gesture, and no one would dismiss it as unimportant. In one sense, your vote really doesn't count. But cast it anyway.


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