I voted in 2016. I voted this year, too. I plan to vote in every election from here forward. But I used to not vote, deliberately, despite many people trying to convince me that I should. The story of their failed pro-voting arguments, and the one successful argument that I came to on my own, says a lot about how we push voting in all the wrong ways, and how we should change.
Why I Didn’t Vote Before
The main reason I didn’t vote was because I didn’t want to be like the people I perceived as “political.” People who talked about politics seemed to always be angry, argumentative, and so defined by their beliefs that they weren’t capable of objectivity. By not voting, I thought I was keeping myself from a slippery slope toward clouded judgement and self-righteousness. I took pride in my position as a calm, centered person who couldn’t be accused of being brainwashed by one party or the other.
The other reason I didn’t vote was math, and this is a tough one. The reality is (hear me out) that it’s highly unlikely that my vote will ever make a difference in the outcome of any election — we’re talking Powerball-level odds. If you’re pro-voting, I know that this statement makes you bristle with counter arguments (believe me, I’ve heard them all, and I’ll address some below) but this is a reality that you need to acknowledge if you want to convince people to vote. It’s difficult to win over someone who’s convinced that their vote is statistically insignificant, because they are objectively correct.
Of course, these reasons were just mine, and may not apply to every non-voter. But I think they’re pretty common sentiments among people who have never voted. If you’re trying to get someone to the poles, these are the issues that you’re probably working against.
The Arguments That Didn’t Work
The pro-voting arguments I encountered never worked on me, and it’s clear to me now why: they tried to work against my reasons, rather than undermining them. Here are few examples:
If Everyone Thought Like You, No One Would Vote/If Lots Of Individuals Vote, It Will Make A Difference
This is easily the most common argument I heard. The logic seems to be that large groups of voters can make a difference in an election, and groups are made up of individuals, so therefore my individual vote matters. But that’s like saying “One hundred is made up of a bunch of ones, so therefore one equals one hundred.” It doesn’t make any real sense; me voting doesn’t mean that anyone else will too. No matter how much you squint and turn your head, numbers are numbers. Anyone can look at vote totals for any election and see that the outcome would be the same no matter who they personally voted for, or whether or not they voted.
And please, don’t pull out a list of elections where one vote did make a difference. In a country that has voted on thousands of candidates and issues over its history, showing the mere handful that were decided by one vote doesn’t strengthen your position.
It’s Your Civic Duty
The argument that voting is duty of citizenship isn’t a bad one, and it might have some sway among people who have an especially strong sense of patriotism. But I could always undercut it in a couple of ways.
- “Okay, but do you donate blood/get a flu shot/donate to charity?” These could also be considered important civic duties that many people don’t do.
- “If you knew I was going to vote for the party/candidates you don’t like, would you still want me to vote?” If the answer to that question is “no,” then it’s clear to the non-voter that “civic duty” isn’t really motivating your argument.
So while the “civic duty” approach is somewhat sound, in most cases it’s easy for a non-voter to dismiss it. And even if you can claim to be a model citizen, and do want them to vote no matter what, you’re still running into the math problem. They aren’t going to see voting as an important duty if they believe that it’s insignificant to begin with.
If You Don’t Vote, You Can’t Complain
The “right to complain” approach is also very common, and in my opinion it’s one of the worst ways to talk someone into voting. First of all, it’s objectively not true. You can complain no matter what. Your right to complain is guaranteed by the Constitution, and it isn’t dependent on voting. But the bigger problem is that this argument has you actually attacking the person you’re supposed to be winning over. You’re telling them what they can and can’t say, in a way that comes off as defensive and angry. And in doing that, you’re only furthering their negative perception of “political” people, and pushing them further away from any involvement in politics.
The Argument That Did Work
The lessons I take away from those failed arguments are clear:
- Non-voters often see voting, politics, and political people as negative things. If you want to get them to vote, you can’t play into the argumentative/self-righteous/pushy perception they have toward it. The more you push, the more they’ll push back against you.
- You can’t disprove math. So don’t try. You have to present a motivation that somehow doesn’t involve “one vote can make a difference.”
If you actually want to convince someone to vote, here is the approach I would use:
You don’t vote? Well, I do, and let me tell you why. There are lots of people in this country who are way more impacted by politics than I am: kids born into poverty, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, people fleeing domestic violence, and so on. I want better things for those people. And how can I say that I support them if I won’t pull over for 10 minutes on my way to work and vote in their interest? How can I look them in the eye if I won’t give them that much?
This is the argument that got me to start voting, and it’s one I came to on my own. I realized that voting costs me almost nothing, but it means a great deal to the most vulnerable people in our country. I simply couldn’t claim to care about those people if I wouldn’t donate a few minutes of my time to them.
If you think back to my reasons for not voting, it’s clear why this argument won me over, and why it can work for you. First off, you’re presenting yourself as a “political” person who isn’t augmentative or angry, but rather empathetic and reasonable — you are modeling yourself as someone the non-voter might want to be like. Second, you’re completely undercutting the mathematical argument without laboring for an angle that disproves it. Maybe a single vote doesn’t count for much, but it also doesn’t take much effort either.
But most importantly, this method gets around the “head” and goes for the “heart.” Voting doesn’t have to be all about your political identity or motivations, it can be about other people. And it doesn’t matter if one vote doesn’t make much difference, because it’s a simple, free gesture that you care about people in need. Instead of defending their reasons for not voting, your listener is instead thinking about other people, about the friends and family that are most impacted by our government.
Without telling the non-voter what to do, or arguing why they’re wrong, you’ve given them a reason to change.
If you’d like to use excerpts from this post for any sort of voter registration or voter turnout effort, you may feel free to do so without getting permission, as long as you include attribution and, if at all possible, a link back to the original post. Feel free to reach out to me at my Twitter account (@cloakmouse ) if you have questions, or other requests.