November 14, 2003

Deciding where to cast my vote

The economy's up, so maybe George Bush's fiscal policies haven't been as disastrous as they seemed. The reconstruction's down, so maybe his foreign policy has been worse. Wait, no, maybe the economy's down again. What was that Howard Dean said about Confederate flags? The election is a year away, I'm totally baffled about whom I'm supposed to vote for, and I even pride myself on being a political junkie.

Supporting a presidential candidate always involves trade-offs, and for me, the calculus can become convoluted. I want a president who is in favor of free trade (before "Steel Tariff Bush" I would have counted on Republicans for that), low taxes, conservative judges, and school vouchers. I also want a president who supports gay marriage, independence of church and state, and unrestricted rights to abortion. Any of those things is available from the current plethora of major-party candidates (one Republican, umpteen Democrats), but the combination is inconceivable. Oh, I'd also like a president in favor of legalizing marijuana, creating electronic cash, privatizing the department of education, and amending the Constitution to include John Stuart Mill's "harm principle," but I'm trying to be realistic.

So how do you make a rational decision between candidates who don't agree with you all that much? (At the moment we have lots of choices—come next November, we'll have far fewer.) There are four levels of sophistication with which to do this.

The easiest approach is one that I've never much liked. You decide that one of the two political parties is much closer to your views than the other one and decide to back their candidate pretty much no matter what. Because it's easy and requires little research, this is probably the most popular approach.

The second easiest thing to do is just pretend you're back in calculus class and add everything up. "Well, I care most about abortion and Jesus, so Gephardt wins there. He loses on free trade, but so do Bush and Dean," and so on. You could even put an arbitrary number of points by each issue, then add them up to yield your favored candidate and pretend you're a political scientist.

A more nuanced approach is to also take into account the powers of a president and the chance that an issue will be on the table. I might care a lot about abortion and separation of church and state, but with the Constitution what it is these days, those things are rarely in the hands of the president. However foreign trade relations, tax cuts, and school vouchers are "hot topics" right now, and presidential influence can make a big difference on some of those. Under this approach of making trade-offs, you pick two or three issues that are likely to be important in the next few years and decide whether the president has actual power to affect them.

The most sophisticated approach to picking a candidate to support is my favorite one. Remember that this discussion so far has relied on the fiction that your vote for a candidate might affect what policies the government will enact. In reality, of course, one vote will never make a difference in a presidential election. Even in notorious Florida, the final margin was hundreds of votes, not one, and if the election ever gets that close, it will be settled in the courts anyway.

Now, I won't argue that because your vote doesn't count, you shouldn't vote. You're not going to vote or not vote just because I told you to. But if you do decide to vote (because you have a duty to, or just because it's fun), remember that voting is not a rational exercise but a personal one. Therefore, the most sophisticated approach to voting is not to tally up failings and strengths in some complicated formula, or even to stand staunchly by your party's choice no matter what. There's nothing wrong with doing those things, if you enjoy them for their own sake, but you shouldn't do them under the belief that you're making the world a better place. The government will count your vote, but it's only to yourself that your vote actually counts.

With that said, this Libertarian will probably end up supporting Howard Dean, at least if his next year of campaigning is similar to his last one. George Bush annoys and frightens me with his religiosity, humility, and quick draw. Wesley Clark has the support of my beloved Bill Clinton, but I can't stand the thought of hearing him talk for four years knowing I voted for him. The Libertarian Party's candidate seems so uninterested in winning I doubt he'll even vote for himself (but it wouldn't take much to get me to vote Libertarian).

Voting really is important. But my vote isn't important because of how it affects the overall election, it's important because it's an opportunity for self-expression and definition. In fact, it's closer to a religious experience than a rational one—a prayer tossed up to the powers that be with no serious hope of a reply. By all means vote, but vote however you feel like it, and throw away any thoughts of strategy. Any well heeled political junkie who tells you otherwise is pulling a fast one.