Burgess Laughlin

A systematic plan for making voting decisions?

25 posts in this topic

In trying to decide for whom to vote, what I am looking for most is a plan that will enable me to make objective decisions systematically rather than by following a jumble of ad hoc guidelines (such as, "When they are equally rotten, go for gridlock" or "If both parties are bad, but one party is entrenched in power, vote for the other to shake things up"), which is all that I have now.

So, my questions, for those who are more immersed in these issues than I am, are:

1. What systematic approach would you recommend for deciding where to place your votes? (This question should apply, as far as I can tell, to Objectivists in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, as well as in the USA; and what I am asking for is a general approach that might apply to most or all elections.)

2. If no plan, no systematic approach, is available, what ad hoc rules or narrow guidelines would you suggest for voting for various offices?

Here is an example, by analogy, of what I mean. If I were a small-business employer, I would not consider a job applicant's individual qualifications alone. I would consider them as an element fitting into my overall, long-term business plan.

What is the equivalent for voting for politicians?

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Could you elaborate on the difference between the two? I have some ideas, but I'm not sure how to categorize them. I'm guessing that a systematic approach is one whose principles you can apply to each particular candidate, while an ad hoc approach has principles that suggest more broadly which party to vote for. I could be totally wrong about the distinction, though.

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Could you elaborate on the difference between the two?

If I own a business, I will have a business plan. (See link for nature of plans.) The plan, in part, gives me a sequence of steps to go through to achieve my goal, profit (among others perhaps). A plan serves another methodological purpose: It sets a context for any particular decision I need to make short-term.

If the business is big, there are various levels of planning. I might have a plan for the business overall. Then I would ask division managers to write plans for achieving corporate goals. Then division managers would ask their various departments for plans supporting the division plan. There is a hierarchy of actions planned. That hierarchy allows individual, front-line managers to make more intelligent decisions about whether to buy a new tool or hire a new person.

Back to me as a voter. I want to live in a better world than I live in now. Why? To increase my chances for being happy for as long as I live. (I intend to live to 100, or die trying.) One way to make my world better is to invest some time or money into supporting my philosohical values -- both directly and in application. ARI is doing an excellent job of the first, that is, promoting my philosophical values directly. Changing the political system for the better is an example of the second, that is, changing the world in which I live as a consequence (application) of basic ideas.

One way to change the political system is to vote. Okay, so now how do I vote in a manner that will likely have the greatest benefit to me over the long-term?

Is there a "business plan" that I can use as a context-setting guide for my actions? To me, the levels of this "business plan" for making the world better for objecctive values should have these levels:

- An objective philosophy as a foundation.

- An ideology, which is an application of a (universal) philosophy to our milieu.

- A strategy that applies the ideology to, for example, a particular country's political system, for example.

- A tactical plan that applies the strategy to, for example, our particular point in time, in which Islamofascists are attacking U. S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both conservatives and liberals support an expanding welfare state, quibbling only over the particular form of it.

Or must I resort to a pile of aphoristic prescriptions I have picked up at random throughout my life? Examples are:

- Shake the politicians up by voting for the party that is "out," as a defensive measure.

- Vote for gridlock in our balance-of-power system, in hopes that the bad guys will do less damage by cancelling each other out.

- Look only at each candidate alone to evaluate is actual morality, and ignore his explicit philosophical statements, while hoping that a "good guy" will do the right thing as much as possible once elected.

At this point in time, I can't explain this distinction between a systematic approach and an ad hoc approach any better.

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I take it the difference is between an integrated approach and a disintegrated approach, not between broad and specific as I had guessed. I'll reply with this distinction in mind a little later - it's taking me a while to form my thoughts fully.

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[...] an integrated approach and a disintegrated approach [...]

TERMINOLOGY

I would say "comprehensive and integrated" versus "non-integrated," but yes I think you are on the right trail.

I see the distinction between broad and narrow as parallel to the distinction between strategic and tactical. If successful, a strategy will have a broad effect, even if some of the tactical plans fail in particular circumstances.

Voting is about as specific as one can get: Should I mark this box or that one? But first I must answer a broader question: How will my vote for this office in this election fit into a long-term plan? That is the question to which I have no answer.

WAR ANALOGY

Setting aside the business-plan analogy, following is another analogy: War.

Should soldiers simply be brought together into a mob and told, "Go kill the enemy!"? I don't think so. There should be a hierarchy of plans: a formal declaration of war (the "ideology"), a strategy carrying out the war, and tactical plans for each local situation.

The Objectivist movement is neither an army nor a business. We are several thousand individuals moving in the same general direction, in terms of the kind of world we want to live in. I think it is reasonable that some Objectivist intellectual somewhere might write up an ideology for our milieu. Other Objectivist intellectuals, perhaps in each country, might develop a strategy for improving life, particularly in politics, in his country, for the decades ahead. And then still other intellectuals, the ones who love politicking in the trenches, can develop tactical plans suitable to their resources and the "lay of the land" at the approriate levels of government.

Will every Objectivist be happy with the proposed ideology, strategy, and tactics? Of course not. But the authors of such pieces can still offer them for discussion and debate. The best ideas will win, and the best people will follow the plan that emerges.

Also, just to note the obvious, I am not talking about a plan that every individual must follow. I would rather, for example, that the brightest philosophy students spend all their time writing books or teaching classes if they are not interested in voting.

The idea isn't to have a plan that everyone needs to follow, but to have a plan that anyone can follow as a guide to particular political actions -- if any.

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I don't think the issue is all that complex. It comes down to answering, as best as one can judge, what difference will it make if this candidate is elected as opposed to that candidate.

I would project, based on my knowledge of the past actions and statements of the particular candidates, what the results would be if they won the office and I would compare them based on the likely results within the term of the offices they are running for. Would this man prosecute the war on terrorism? How well? Will this man institute socialized medicine, ban abortion, censor the internet, bring back the Fairness Doctrine, replace the constitution with a theocracy, etc. in the next four years?

I review the likely consequences for each electoral choice, weigh them by their importance, and vote accordingly. If it is a close call between essentially good candidates, I vote for the one that is slightly better. If it is a close call between essentially bad candidates, I don't vote.

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A strategy is a long-range plan for achieving a goal. In politics, the overall goal is the creation and maintenance of a government that acts to protect individual rights, and does not act to violate them. This suggests that a key input to any systematic plan for influencing the policies of the government will be an assessment of the standing of the government's current and proposed policies relative to individual rights.

Since we're doing the analysis in terms of potential changes in government policy, we need to examine the status of various rights both under the current set of policies and after whatever changes would be made as a result of the election. Rights can be classified in one of four basic ways:

  1. Protected currently and intended to be protected in the future.
  2. Currently protected but intended to be violated/not protected in the future.
  3. Currently violated/not protected but intended to be protected in the future.
  4. Currently violated/not protected and intended to be violated/not protected in the future.

(Obviously there are mixtures as well; rights that are partially respected but with encroachments. For now, I think we can set aside these cases until the basic analytic framework is established.)

Rights in the first category are being treated essentially correctly by the government, and are not controversial. An example of such a right in the current American political context might be the right not to be enslaved. If somebody tried to set up chattel slavery in the United States, the government would stop them, and no politician is campaigning on a platform to change this. Rights in this category can be ignored as 'safe' when deciding how to vote.

Rights in the last category are the inverse of the first. The government is not protecting them, or is actively violating them, and this government action is not controversial among the electorate generally. An example of such a rights violation in the current American political context might be the existence of antitrust law. It's an egregious violation of economic liberty, but it's going to continue occurring in the immediate future regardless of whether one votes for the Democrats or the Republicans. The correct action to take here is intellectual activism to change public opinion over the long term, with the goal of making the rights violation controversial and moving it into category (3) in a future election. Rights in this category can be ignored as 'unfixable' when deciding how to vote.

The rights in the second and third categories are the interesting ones from the perspective of a voting decision. Rights in the second category are the subject of defensive voting -- the government is currently protecting a legitimate right, but its doing so is controversial and candidates are running for office on a platform of making the government cease protecting (or start violating) the right. The obvious example of this in the current American political context is abortion.

The rights in the third category are the (sadly oh so rare) subjects of offensive voting -- the government is currently not protecting or is violating a right, but its actions are controversial and there are candidates running for office on a platform of making the government start protecting the right appropriately. It's unfortunately tricky to come up with examples of this category on a national political scale, but possibilities might include the movements to curtail race preferences and abuses of eminent domain, or the partial privatization of Social Security.

What you have to do then is identify the various individual rights you care about, rank them in order of importance to you, and assess which categories they fall into relative to the candidates running in the election. These days, candidates will be mixed cases, treating some of your individual rights as category (2) and some as category (3), and their levels of hostility to category (2) rights and support for category (3) rights will vary. You will also need to assess the level of threat currently existing to category (2) rights, and the level of support for category (3) rights, to determine how likely the policy of the government relative to each is to shift based on the outcome of the election. (There was a time when electing a specific anti-abortion candidate wouldn't have been a major threat because the overall political consensus was so strongly in favor of abortion rights; that's less the case now than it was 30 years ago.)

The overall goal here is to develop a measurement of which currently-protected rights are likely to become violated as a result of the outcome of the election; which currently unprotected rights are likely to become protected; and how much you care about each. On this basis you pick a side to support (or you decide that both sides are equally good/bad, in which case you don't vote). Then you support the side you pick with argument, resources, time and your vote. The rights-matrix you developed will provide the factual basis for defending your support of whichever side you pick, and will allow you to integrate your goals for this specific election into a broader plan for cultural and political change.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of complexities in actually doing this. Sometimes a candidate will propose doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and you have to decide which is more important or else risk selling out long-term ideas for short-term gains. You need to assess the likely impact on your rights not just of the short-term policy proposals but of the fundamental ideas that underlie those policy proposals.

The above is just a brief sketch, but it reflects the general approach I have had to voting for some time now.

(It occurs to me on rereading this that I may have just said what Betsy said but in a much longer way.)

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Broadly: Determining the best party.

Broadly speaking, the goal of voting is to maximize the protection of one's individual rights. I start with the most fundamental right of all, the right to life, and work my way down until I find substantial difference between the candidates. (I call this "political triage"; focusing on the most important rights first.)

In a peaceful context where there were no extreme domestic or foreign threats, I'd skip down to the next level and evaluate the candidates on property and liberty. This is what I end up doing for local candidates, because they have no effect on foreign threats, and there are no extreme domestic threats where I live.

As for national elections (Congress and the President), foreign threats are the only issue I consider, because they can have an effect on them, and the Republicans are usually better.

Specifically: Applying reward/punishment to that party.

That said, I've been having second thoughts about voting Republican. I've realized that a longer-term view should not consider individual candidates, but the direction of the party itself. The important thing is not who gets into office, but what you are telling the entire party with your vote. Are you asking them for more religion and less war, or vice-versa? The intellectual future of the party will have a greater affect on you than any single candidate's success or failure.

The question, then, is how to send the message as unambiguously as possible. A vote is a single tick mark, saying nothing about why you voted unless you do exit polls (and even they are too vague to be useful). There are three choices: A nod, a shake, or a blank stare.

1) The nod indicates they should keep doing what they're already doing.

2) The shake (i.e., a vote for the other party) indicates they should become like the party you voted for.

3) The blank stare (i.e., abstaining from voting) indicates you don't approve of them, but not in a way that would make you vote for the other guy.

Which is most likely to send the right message? I think #3, if the Republicans are getting worse, and #1, if they're getting better. So instead of comparing the two parties, you'd be comparing the better party with its recent history, punishing it if it gets worse. Yes, many people abstain due to laziness, but the party can tell when more of their base abstained this election than last time.

(Harry Binswanger got me thinking on this track after suggesting on Sept 8th in HBL that we not vote. I'm not completely certain it is right, but I'd welcome any debate about it.)

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I still consider a new third party as the best overall approach, but granting the possibility of using an existing party, I think that people are missing an important point made by Betsy. Lost in the discussion of why the Dems or Republicans are terrible is the assumption that those parties are eternal, static groupings, and one must either integrate or be excluded. That is the psychology of a follower. Anybody who's really going to make a difference is going to be a real leader, a fountainhead, and *effect* change by their own thinking and will. That's how social change occurs, and most people are just the "ballast" following along. Regardless of the current makeup of the GOP, if there's actually sufficient public support for more rational ideas, it might be possible for such leaders to remold the party in their own fashion, using its vast infrastructure (including financial) to politically implement the ideas.

The reason why I prefer a third party is that it could start out being everything that it should be, idealogically, rather than dealing with the enormous baggage of the two existing major parties. That's the major tradeoff, but if there's enough discontent with the status quo, a third party would provide a clear alternative not muddied by past actions and assumptions.

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The question, then, is how to send the message as unambiguously as possible. A vote is a single tick mark, saying nothing about why you voted unless you do exit polls (and even they are too vague to be useful).

I think that the best way to send the message unambiguously is to literally send a message, i.e. write a letter to the campaign of the candidate you vote for telling them why you are planning to vote for them, and a letter to the candidate you vote against telling them why you are planning to vote against them. If you abstain from voting, write to both candidates telling them why they are failing to earn your vote. (Phone calls also work.) If you have overall concerns about the way an entire party is moving that leads to your no longer supporting the party's candidates in general, write to the national party comittee expressing your reasons for your decision. The parties and candidates will use the information they receive this way to help them interpret the results of elections.

Basically, if you're concerned that a party or candidate will misinterpret the ambiguous meaning of your vote, get in touch with them and tell them the meaning of your vote explicitly.

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The question, then, is how to send the message as unambiguously as possible. A vote is a single tick mark, saying nothing about why you voted unless you do exit polls (and even they are too vague to be useful).

The only effective way to "send a message" is to send a MESSAGE.

Send a letter to your Congressman explaining WHY you don't approve of what he is doing. Write letters to the editor. Call talk radio shows. Join your local Republican Club and volunteer for some task where you can spread ideas. Post to influential conservative web sites. Put an "Attack Iran" bumper sticker on your car.

Votes won't change much. IDEAS will.

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The reason why I prefer a third party is that it could start out being everything that it should be, idealogically, rather than dealing with the enormous baggage of the two existing major parties. That's the major tradeoff, but if there's enough discontent with the status quo, a third party would provide a clear alternative not muddied by past actions and assumptions.

Most third parties try to leverage discontent, but that is why they fail. The only way to succeed is to be FOR something.

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Lost in the discussion of why the Dems or Republicans are terrible is the assumption that those parties are eternal, static groupings, and one must either integrate or be excluded. That is the psychology of a follower. Anybody who's really going to make a difference is going to be a real leader, a fountainhead, and *effect* change by their own thinking and will. That's how social change occurs, and most people are just the "ballast" following along. Regardless of the current makeup of the GOP, if there's actually sufficient public support for more rational ideas, it might be possible for such leaders to remold the party in their own fashion, using its vast infrastructure (including financial) to politically implement the ideas.

You would be surprised how EASY that is to do.

You can set up an "Objectivists only" Republican club as we did in the 1960's in NYC with the Metropolitan Young Republican Club. Under the MYRC banner we issued a newsletter, ran candidates for local office, got coverage in the press and on the radio, and brought suit in federal court to end the military draft. (This last brought member Martin Anderson to the attention of the White House where he became a speech writer and, eventually, Reagan's domestic adviser.)

You can become Education Chairman, Publication Editor, or responsible for web site content for your existing local Republican organization. I know several Objectivists in Orange County, CA who did just that and had enormous influence on the ideas spread by both the county and the state-wide Republican organizations. Most party volunteers are reluctant to take on writing or speaking chores, so the jobs should be yours for the asking.

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I think that the best way to send the message unambiguously is to literally send a message,
The only effective way to "send a message" is to send a MESSAGE.

My worry is that it'll turn out to be all bark and no bite - i.e., you'll spend hundreds of man-hours telling the Republicans where they're going wrong and how they can improve, and then on election day they still get your vote. To put some teeth behind your words, I think you need to use the reward/punishment mechanism I mentioned. Otherwise, I don't see why the party should care what you think; they're getting your vote anyway.

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My worry is that it'll turn out to be all bark and no bite - i.e., you'll spend hundreds of man-hours telling the Republicans where they're going wrong and how they can improve, and then on election day they still get your vote. To put some teeth behind your words, I think you need to use the reward/punishment mechanism I mentioned. Otherwise, I don't see why the party should care what you think; they're getting your vote anyway.

I'm not sure I understand your concern here. The party has no way to tell whether they received your specific vote or not, because we have secret ballots. All they can know is the total aggregate number of votes they received -- and because that's an aggregate, you can wind up in the situation where you tell them why you aren't voting for them and they still win regardless of how you vote as an individual.

I'm not suggesting that you tell them you're doing one thing and then vote a different way. I'm suggesting you pick a side to support based on the kind of analysis I outlined above, then inform both sides explicitly of your conclusion and your reasons for it, then speak and vote accordingly.

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My worry is that it'll turn out to be all bark and no bite - i.e., you'll spend hundreds of man-hours telling the Republicans where they're going wrong and how they can improve, and then on election day they still get your vote. To put some teeth behind your words, I think you need to use the reward/punishment mechanism I mentioned. Otherwise, I don't see why the party should care what you think; they're getting your vote anyway.

I see no conflict between criticizing the Republicans and voting for them too. Like Ayn Rand who was an "Anti-Nixonite for Nixon," I intend to be an "Anti-Republican for Republicans."

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My worry is that it'll turn out to be all bark and no bite - i.e., you'll spend hundreds of man-hours telling the Republicans where they're going wrong and how they can improve...

One more thing -- sending a message doesn't take hundreds of man-hours. The bulk of the time is spent figuring out which side deserves your support and why, which is work you'll need to do anyhow to exercise franchise responsibly. Once the thinking is done, cranking out letters to major candidates and parties shouldn't take more than a single afternoon. If you go fully comprehensive, you're talking about writing letters to:

  • Party committees at the national, state and local levels
  • Presidential candidates for both major parties
  • Senate candidates for both major parties
  • House candidates for both major parties
  • Governor candidates for both major parties
  • State senate candidates for both major parties
  • State representative candidates for both major parties
  • Mayoral candidates for both major parties
  • City council candidates for both major parties

By my count, that's a total of 22 letters if you want to cover politics at all levels, and all offices are up for election at the same time. In reality, in any given jurisdiction some of these races won't be taking place and some will be non-competitive. That reduces the total number you would need to write. I can also see leaving off the local races, as they're often officially non-partisan and turn on much more local/concrete concerns. (For example, the mayoral campaign here in San Jose this year has been pretty hot, but it's mostly about cleaning up city hall after a series of shady financial dealings put in place by the current mayor. I don't see a significant ideological dimension in play here.)

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I'm not suggesting that you tell them you're doing one thing and then vote a different way.
I see no conflict between criticizing the Republicans and voting for them too. Like Ayn Rand who was an "Anti-Nixonite for Nixon," I intend to be an "Anti-Republican for Republicans."

I certainly am not saying that it's hypocritical. What I am wondering is what incentive you're giving them to change if after criticizing them, you consistently vote for them. All they care about in the end is getting elected, and they certainly will not cater to any group whose vote is guaranteed for them.

The way I see it, you can vote by comparing the parties, or vote by comparing the best party to its recent history (giving them a vote if they improved and abstaining from voting if they declined). The former allows you to decelerate the declining spiral these parties are headed down, whilst the latter tries to reverse the decline entirely. Just a thought.

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What I am wondering is what incentive you're giving them to change if after criticizing them, you consistently vote for them. All they care about in the end is getting elected, and they certainly will not cater to any group whose vote is guaranteed for them.

Correct. What I am doing is putting them on notice that my vote is NOT guaranteed for them and -- most importantly -- I am telling them exactly WHY.

The way I see it, you can vote by comparing the parties, or vote by comparing the best party to its recent history (giving them a vote if they improved and abstaining from voting if they declined). The former allows you to decelerate the declining spiral these parties are headed down, whilst the latter tries to reverse the decline entirely. Just a thought.

The way I see it, you vote for individual candidates and issues and do all you can to get the most likely party (usually the Republicans) to support them and candidates and issues like them.

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I prefer a third party is that it could start out being everything that it should be, idealogically, rather than dealing with the enormous baggage of the two existing major parties. That's the major tradeoff, but if there's enough discontent with the status quo, a third party would provide a clear alternative not muddied by past actions and assumptions.

Phil, I totally agree. I would go even further. I think we as Objectivists don't actually fully understand our own political views. I certainly don't - not yet. We should become even clearer on exactly what we want. There are a host of issues, and personally I'd rather hash them out among ourselves before releasing them to the wild. That is one other reason I advocate a third party: avoid all focus on fixing bad things, spend all our [very limited] time and energy on developing our ideas better into something consistent.

I haven't read the 20pages [sic] of posts created in one day in response to Dr. Peikoff's statement on voting democrat. But I expect to see wide differences of opinion on concrete issues that make my point.

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I certainly am not saying that it's hypocritical. What I am wondering is what incentive you're giving them to change if after criticizing them, you consistently vote for them.

I don't think either Betsy or I are advocating what you are describing here. I reiterate my observation that the party *has no way* to determine whether *I* vote for them or not; all they can determine is the *total number of votes they get*. The ability of my single vote to change the outcome of the election is extremely small.

The advantage in sending explicit messages to the parties explaining why they are or are not receiving your support is that it helps establish the framework the parties will use to interpret the aggregate results they receive.

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In trying to decide for whom to vote, what I am looking for most is a plan that will enable me to make objective decisions systematically rather than by following a jumble of ad hoc guidelines (such as, "When they are equally rotten, go for gridlock" or "If both parties are bad, but one party is entrenched in power, vote for the other to shake things up"), which is all that I have now.

So, my questions, for those who are more immersed in these issues than I am, are:

1. What systematic approach would you recommend for deciding where to place your votes?

Are you familiar with a Decision Matrix?

It is a simple mathematical tool for making multifaceted decisions. On one axis of the matrix, (let us say the horizontal), you list the candidates for office. On the vetical axis you list the issues that matter to you. In the corresponding squares of the matrix, you must rate where the particular candidate stands on that issue, giving him a score from 1 to 10. You can also weight each of the issues in relation to one another, multiplying each by an appropriate factor. You then add the scores to see whom you favor.

It is such a simple thing, most people do it in their heads without thinking about it. It will always help to write it all down, though. See this link for a more detailed explanation.

http://www.rfp-templates.com/What-is-a-Decision-Matrix.html

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Correct. What I am doing is putting them on notice that my vote is NOT guaranteed for them and -- most importantly -- I am telling them exactly WHY.

Based on what you've said, it appears that your vote is guaranteed for them unless the Democrats are better (which is almost never). That's the problem I see with comparing the two existing choices instead of comparing the best party with its prior performance.

I don't think either Betsy or I are advocating what you are describing here. I reiterate my observation that the party *has no way* to determine whether *I* vote for them or not; all they can determine is the *total number of votes they get*. The ability of my single vote to change the outcome of the election is extremely small.

Of course. Voting always is a single drop in the bucket, but nevertheless this is a discussion on voting, so I don't think its futility is a valid argument against any particular method.

And like I said, the party can certainly tell if their base stayed home. All it takes is comparing turnout with previous years.

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I disagree with the mindset that "The ability of my single vote to change the outcome of the election is extremely small." Clapping our hands is what we do to a performance we like, regardless of what the rest of the audience thinks, because our goal is to reward the performer. Clapping is the exact analogy to voting.

Imagine how strange it would be if you suddenly started clapping all by yourself! And yet no person claps hoping that everyone else will clap too (because your own clap doesn't really matter). We just clap, because our sole object is the reward of the performer based on our values. That the the rest of the audience claps too is merely a side incident (although it's everyone clapping in totality that shows that the audience is pleased).

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