If you do a Google search, ask a friend, or simply exist on Facebook, you’ll find a whole host of voices telling you that – statistically – your individual vote doesn’t matter in the grander scheme.
For instance, this article asserts that your vote making a difference is statistically “very improbable, because for your vote to affect an election, the two candidates have to be within one vote of each other without you. If Trump earns 2,000,000 votes in a given state without your vote and Clinton earns 2,000,002, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you voted. The outcome wouldn’t change.”
Now, there are a few problems with this argument:
1) It assumes that yours is the only vote that doesn’t matter.
Yes, if everybody but you votes, and there is a 2 point margin, then your vote doesn’t matter. True. The issue is that this logic only works if we restrict it to only referring to one specific person. We can say “If everybody votes except Steve Rogers, and the totals are 200 to 202, then Steve’s vote wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”
But, and this is key, it only works if we restrict our field to just one specific person”Steve Rogers.” If we shift the field to refer to a different specific person, say, Barbara Gordon, then we can then say “If everybody votes except Barbara Gordon, and the totals are 200 to 202, then Barbara’s vote wouldn’t have mattered anyway.” BUT, in that case Steve’s vote does matter, because we’ve shifted our field to somebody else.
In order for the argument that Barbara’s vote doesn’t matter to work, Steve’s vote has to matter.
So the logic of this argument from statistics can’t be applied across the board. We can’t say “Regardless of who votes, Barbara’s vote doesn’t matter.” The whole argument rests on the fact that everybody else voted and all of their votes mattered.
2) It commits equivocation.
But why does it sound so convincing at a glance? Because of equivocation. Equivocation is a fallacy where one word is used that has multiple meanings without specifying which meaning is being used.
Thus, if we say that Captain Hook is a codfish, it does not then imply that Captain Hook can breath underwater. We have to make a logical distinction between the pejorative term and the literal animal.
In the instance of voting, the term being equivocated is ‘you’. “You” in the English language can be singular or plural, “you specifically” or “you all”/”ya’ll.”
When we say “If Trump earns 2,000,000 votes in a given state without your vote and Clinton earns 2,000,002, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you voted” the ‘you’ in that sentence can be taken two ways. First, it can refer to ‘you’ in the general, collective sense: “All ya’ll who read this.” Second, it can refer to the specific you reading the article at this very moment: you-and-only-you Steve Rogers or you-and-only-you Barbara Gordon.
It is in this you-and-only-you sense that the argument from statistics works, when ‘you’ refers to one specific individual at a time.
The problem is that when we read it, we tend to confuse these senses in our minds. We say “well it’s clearly true when it refers to me, so it must be true for you too.” And it is true for them too, but only when it’s not true for you. It can only be true for one person at a time.
The logic only holds if our ‘you’ in the scenario is really just one individual person, you-in-particular-and-only-you; it falls apart if our ‘you’ is a corporate you, ie, everybody who might be voting.
3) It results in a literal contradiction in terms.
If we take out the equivocation, the result is a literal contradiction in terms. The argument amounts to saying “it doesn’t matter if any of you vote, because the rest of you will.” But if the rest of you will then each of those has to matter for the argument to work, which contradicts the initial statement.
So yes, your vote does matter. The argument from statistics is a fallacy ridden load of hogwash, because the only way we could say your vote doesn’t matter is if we assume that every vote except yours matters.
Tell the statisticians to go back to logic class and try again.
Statistically, your vote matters. It has also been shown voter turnout also reflects how likely politicians are to work towards policies that enact the will of their constituents (we might address other arguments – such as those based on the setup of the electoral college – at another time).
Caveat: I do agree with the central thesis of the quoted article that you should vote your conscience, however, the reason that you should vote your conscience is not because your vote doesn’t matter anyway, but because it does.
It’s the same logic that these folks use try to use to say your vote doesn’t matter that others use to say that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote. It’s the same equivocation. If you-and-only-you vote for a third party candidate, then of course they have no chance of winning. But that logic cannot be spread to the collective ‘you’; if the collective “ya’ll” vote for a third party candidate then they will necessarily win, because who you vote for does count.
This is what happens when our schools don’t have mandatory logic classes.
Don’t just trust me, trust Captain America. He wouldn’t tell you to vote if your vote didn’t matter.