Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wasted Votes

"The only wasted vote is for a candidate you do not believe in"
People like to say that every vote counts. This is not true. Every vote is counted, but none of them actually matter.

This election is one week away, and when I vote on election day it will be far too late to change anyone's mind about anything. Mitt Romney could rape a child and set him on fire on live TV and still get 180 electoral votes.

For Mitt Romney to win (sans child rape) he needs to pick up Ohio and one other state (probably Colorado). Let us pretend that we are a Colorado voter and the election has already been called in Ohio. We go to the polls all excited because we are the last swing state to vote (if RMONEY has won OHIO, Montana and Arizona are out of play). Except our vote still doesn't matter.

Let us pretend that every poll worker is a saint. This is not true, but it is astonishingly close to what 99.9% of America will see on election night. That doesn't matter because they are still people. Even the voting machines are fallible. If you recall the close elections in Minnesota in 2006 (?) and Florida in 2000, every single recount had a different tally. This is because when you are counting millions of votes, even using the exact same methods and people, you will get oh so slightly different outcomes each time.

Think about your own life. Most of the time you get along just fine with counting. Every now and then, however, you will be standing in line at the supermarket counting up fruit and you will skip the number four. Then when you go to check out you will see you are short one tomato and don't have enough to make dinner properly. This doesn't happen often, maybe one in a thousand trips to the supermarket, which in the normal course of your life turns out to be once every ten or twenty years.

If you mess up at counting once every thousand time, or once every hundred thousand times, that means that your counting ability has an error rate. From a statistical point of view, whenever you count to ten you should really say "ten, plus or minus .00001". When ten becomes two million, suddenly you need to say "two million, plus or minus a thousand".

The point being that if the race is sufficiently close, your vote doesn't exist. Even if, in some platonic Real World you cast the absolute 50%+1 decisive ballot, that ballot gets lost in the almost quantum fuzziness of statistical error. The error bars will hardly notice you.

"But," I hear you saying, "I am still moving those error bars a tiny bit, right?" No. The answer is no, you are not. Because the moment the race falls into that statistical window of uncertainty (and typically a little before that if you have litigious candidates) out come the lawyers. Your vote won't matter in a close race because it will go to the courts, and possibly the state or federal legislature depending on the race, and only the opinions of incumbent politicians and/or unelected judges will matter.

In short, in most states your vote doesn't matter because the election might as well have been decided two months ago, and in swing states your vote won't matter because if it is close the courts will take over.

By the time it comes to actually step into the ballot box, your vote is purely an expressive gesture, no matter who you are voting for.

By the way, this doesn't just apply to the president. This is the first general election after redistricting, meaning that your state legislature has spent the last two years shopping around for exactly the set of voters that would protect the most incumbents and maximize the favored party's seats. And believe me, as someone who does this for a living, we can get very detailed about exactly which voters would do the best for which candidates. Perhaps when you get down to the very bottom of the ballot your vote could have some impact, though even there the races tend to break either along strict party lines or in lopsided defeats for the less well known candidate.

This goes against the grain of years of government funded propaganda, but the fact is that your vote doesn't matter. Not in any state, not for any candidate anywhere near the top of the ballot.

When people tell me that they agree with Gary Johnson, but don't want to waste their vote, it takes every ounce of my steely will not to slap the ignorant out of them.

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