The Magazine

Apathetics Anonymous

The joy of deciding not to decide who should be the next president of the United States.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By MATT LABASH
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Resourceful citizen that he is, T.I. found a loophole in Georgia law. As he tells it, "As long as you registered, you ain't servin' no sentence, you are awaiting sentencing, as of right now, you can vote." And so he did. "I'm actually leading by example," he proclaimed afterwards. A grateful nation thanks him. But perhaps, while T.I. is giving himself a gold star for voting, he might consider that he'd have more usefully checked off his good citizenship block by not getting busted for possessing unregistered machine guns with silencers, by not selling crack, and by not getting into public beefs with fellow citizens Lil' Flip, Chaka Zulu, and Shawty Lo.

It's not just felonious rappers, however, who are infantilizing the act of voting. Corporations, too, are getting in on the action. As MSNBC.com reported, voting has become so sacrosanct that businesses are actually giving away free stuff just for your having done so.

If you showed up with your "I voted" sticker this election day--a boast that has the ring of a 6-year-old crowing that he successfully tied his shoes--it was possible to get free ice cream from Ben & Jerry's, free donuts from Krispy Kreme, and free marital aids--a "Maverick sleeve" for men ("he's always there to lend a hand, he works for every man, and he bucks the status quo") or a Silver Bullet mini-vibrator for women ("a great stress reliever during these economic times")--from the sex-toys emporium Babeland.

I hate to rain on the voteaholic's good-feelings parade, but as an engaged citizen, I must. First, there's the illogic of encouraging people to vote who might not believe in what you do. When I think a particular presidential candidate really matters, as I often have, the last thing in the world I want to do is to encourage someone who opposes that candidate to vote. I'm happy for you if your voice has found expression. But there's only one voice I want to count: my own. The last thing I need is your cancelling it out. Suggesting that the latter is more important than the former is suggesting that the act of voting is more important than what you're voting for, which puts a question mark on the seriousness of the entire enterprise.

But we kid ourselves that our individual votes matter more than they do. As author Steven Landsburg wrote in Slate, even assuming you lived in Florida during a tight election, one in which 51 percent of fellow voters had a likelihood of voting for a particular candidate, your chance of casting the tiebreaker would be one in 10 to the 1,046th power, "approximately the same chance you have of winning the Powerball jackpot 128 times in a row." Shooting down the voteaholic's standard objection--what if everyone thought like that?--Landsburg wrote, "So what? Everyone doesn't think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions."

And the large groups of people who do think like that would have had a negligible effect on the election if they'd chosen otherwise. After the 2000 election--the tightest in modern history--Northwestern University researchers, along with the Campaign Study Group, set about studying nonvoters and found that if they had gone ahead and voted, 37 percent would have voted for Bush, and 37 percent would have voted for Al Gore, leaving us right where we finished anyway.

Voteaholics also eternally assume that high voter turnout is a sign of the good health of our system, when in fact, the opposite could be argued. Do more people vote because they're satisfied or because they're dissatisfied? A look at figures kept by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) might cause you to question this article of faith.

IDEA, it turns out, keeps statistics on voter turnout for all countries that have had elections since 1945. America, which most would agree is the prime exemplar of democracy, the envy of the world, averages a meager 48.3 percent voter turnout, enough to get us ranked 139th. Who's ahead of us? Such shiny happy beacons of freedom as Cambodia, Indonesia, Angola, and Somalia (all ranked in the top ten with more than 85 percent turnout), as well as Rwanda, Iran, Zimbabwe, Syria, Russia, and Uganda in descending order, to name just a few. We beat Sierra Leone at least, if only by a point-and-a-half.