By Trevor Woitsky
As a mixed-race American with a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father, I have seen both sides of the racial fence post. I believe my mixed heritage gives me a unique perspective into both the advantages afforded to many white Americans as well as the scourge of racism, a daily fact of life for many minorities in this country. My personal experiences have highlighted the urgent imperative to make my voice heard at the ballot box; here’s why I vote, and why I believe you should too.
The moral case
In the aftermath of the 2016 Election, there was a seismic change in American politics. Growing up in a predominantly white town, prior to that year, in my experience racism was primarily contained to stereotypical Asian teases or assumptions of my character based on my Chinese background. However, in 2016, I noticed a shift: encouraged by irresponsible actors in old and new media and vitriolic political rhetoric, those harboring ugly prejudices no longer felt like they had to hide. While my perceptions have been validated by subsequent academic studies and statistics, reading a report on discrimination will never be the same as what it feels like to experience it.
Over the past five years, political actors have made discriminatory comments that would have been virtually unheard of prior to that period. President Trump praised the “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville riots; denigrated the “animals,” “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists” who sought to come to the U.S., often from “shithole countries”; and has dragged his feet in disavowing white supremacists time and time again. However, most personal for me were his incendiary statements regarding the coronavirus. Throughout early 2020, he repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” or the “Kung flu.” Many latched onto these prejudiced terms to blame Asian-Americans for the Chinese Communist Party’s egregious behavior or to justify repugnant hate crimes, which have risen dramatically against Asian-Americans since 2020.
The rise in hate crimes has been personal for my family. My grandmother is a 78-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong who escaped the Chinese Civil War. She raised her children amid the NYC crime wave of the 1970s and 80s; yetYet she says that now, for the first time, she fears for her safety when she leaves her Chinatown apartment because of recent violence against Asian-Americans. Even my mother and I have seen the effects of increased prejudice in our predominantly white suburban town. Going to the local gas station or supermarket has become an anxiety-inducing exercise; the gaze of the “white stare” and the subtle suspicions of strangers are often palpable. Importantly, COVID has laid bare racism not only targeting Asian-Americans, but targeting African-Americans and Hispanics as well.
Trying to imagine what it would feel like to be the target of racism makes the problem more real. How would you feel if you were treated unfairly by police during traffic stops because of your skin color while other drivers drive faster than you? How would you feel if you constantly experienced racial teasing based on false stereotypes? Would you sit at home waiting for politicians to act in your best interest, or would you take matters into your own hands and engage yourself in the political process?
If you feel alienated by politics, like your ballot doesn’t matter or that politicians don’t represent you, I get it. Massive numbers of people vote. It’s rare for politicians to directly listen to the voices of their constituents.
However, the civil rights movement epitomizes the power of political engagement on behalf of long-oppressed people. Think of what would have become of it if those participating thought their votes didn’t matter.
Maybe the twin laws of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which advanced racial equality more than any legislation since the Reconstruction Amendments, would not have passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, giving African-Americans and other minorities the civil rights protections for which they long yearned and instigating an evolution of racial attitudes that has continued for decades since. Meanwhile, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided federal oversight of voter registration in areas long plagued by voter discrimination and required areas that experienced the highest levels of voter disenfranchisement to seek federal approval before enacting new voting procedures. It made a drastic impact: for instance, from 1964 to 1969, black turnout in Mississippi jumped from 6% to 59%. This expansion of the franchise gave millions of black Americans who were previously effectively disenfranchised an opportunity for their voices to be heard. It allowed long-oppressed groups to acquire the political clout needed to secure further civil, economic, and political equality, a genuinely transformational change.
This progress wasn’t achieved by decree; it was the result of decades of activism and political engagement stridently opposed by forces of bigotry, stubbornness, and violence. By voting, we honor civil rights leaders’ intrepid struggle.
The economist’s case
There’s another reason many Americans are reluctant to vote: they believe, fairly enough, that the power of their ballot has been diluted or has even evaporated almost entirely. A study by Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman and several colleagues indicated that in the 2008 Election, a single voter would have had—at best!—approximately a 1 in 10 million chance to determine the outcome of the national election (if they lived in New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire, or Colorado), and at worst, a one in several billion chance. These definitely aren’t great odds. For this reason, when taking into consideration the costs of voting—travel time, candidate research, voter registration, etc.—it seems that, as the Oxford Reference Encyclopedia writes, “the cost [of voting] is typically much larger than the expected benefit.” Why vote when your ballot simply doesn’t matter?
Maybe your vote would make a difference if you could convince an entire crowd of people to vote with you!
Credit: Nick Anderson
In addition to the principled argument for voting—that it’s a civic duty that can play a vital role in fueling social and moral change—there are two reasons I believe even the most committed utilitarian should cast their ballot as well:
First, close elections, while rare, definitely happen. In fact, while political polarization may be disheartening because it leads to gridlock and animus directed towards political opponents, it actually makes voting more worthwhile by ensuring that most elections will be closer. We don’t have to mentally journey back very far to recall hotly-contested races. In the 2020 Election, President Biden won decisive states by razor-thin margins: Pennsylvania by a mere 50% to 48.8%, a difference of only 81,000 votes, and Georgia by 49.5% to 49.2%, just a 12,000-vote buffer. His edge could have been because of new voters: 17 million more ballots were cast in 2020 than in 2016, representing a 5% increase in turnout and the greatest level of voter participation for a century.
But what if I don’t live in a swing state? And weren’t the candidates still separated by thousands of votes?
To the first question: Think of down-ballot races. Or Michigan in 2016: the Clinton campaign thought it was a safe state.
To the second: Other elections have been far closer! In 2017, an election was tied in the Virginia House of Delegates. The candidates drew lots to decide who won. That election, which essentially hinged on the result of a coin flip, swung the balance of power within the Virginia House. In 2008, Al Franken won his Senate race by 312 votes; the inclusion of 935 wrongly rejected absentee ballots into the count singlehandedly changed the results. And think of the 2000 Election: it was officially decided by 538 votes; had the recount continued, who knows how close it would have been? It’s clear: even just one vote matters.
The second utilitarian reason to vote is that even using a cost-benefit analysis, if you care about others, it’s worth it. Scottish philosopher William MacAskill has made the following argument: the median voter has about a 1 in 60 million chance of swinging the election. Suppose the benefits you receive from your favored candidate winning are equivalent to about $1,000. That means that, just considering yourself, the expected value of voting is 1 in 60 million multiplied by $1,000, or 0.00167 cents. That’s pretty abysmal, and I wouldn’t blame you for hearing that number and becoming even more cynical.
However, think about what happens if you consider the benefits to others. You’d multiply that result by 331 million, the population of the U.S., to capture the monetary value of the benefits to them. That means the expected social value of your vote is about $5,500—not bad at all! Plus, that doesn’t even take into account the value of your vote for House, Senate, mayor, governor, statehouse, judge, and more, which could be included on the same ballot.
Even from a purely rational perspective, you should vote.
The democracy case
There is one final reason why your vote is so important now. After any election, it’s fair to be satisfied or dissatisfied with the results of the electoral process. Statistically, the chances are better than not that you’ll walk away happy with the outcome, but that doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay. But now, worryingly, the legitimacy of the process itself has come under attack. That means the stakes are different: it isn’t just about who wins this time around. If the rules of the game are being threatened, it means incumbents may be able to extend and entrench power for themselves and their parties for years or decades to come. By voting now for candidates who respect the sanctity of the electoral process, we make it more likely that ourselves and others’ votes will matter in the future.
Regardless of your stance on how easy it should be to vote, it should be clear that President Trump threatened the very foundations of American democracy. First, he questioned the integrity of the vote count in 2016, with baseless claims that he would have won had “millions and millions” of fraudulent votes not been cast. Then, before the 2020 Election, he sought to undermine Americans’ faith in the transition of power by sowing doubt as to whether he would concede if he lost. He subsequently attacked the integrity of mail-in voting despite countless experts rebutting his false claims. Finally, his attacks on the electoral process culminated in his post-election strategy aimed at undermining Biden’s legitimacy, which caused arguably the worst attack on U.S. democracy since the Civil War. Joe Biden’s win in 2020 was a rebuttal to Trump’s four years of hostility towards democracy. It was only possible thanks to record voter turnout of eligible Americans in swing states.
Voting is no longer a mere civic duty but a moral duty, a duty to protect and uphold the Constitution from the encroachment of anti-democratic forces and ideas. The franchise is the lifeblood of social movements, and voting is an altruistic act even from a purely rational perspective. I hope those of you still on the fence about voting choose the collective good of the nation over alienation or cynicism in 2022 and 2024.
Title Image Credit: David Fitzsimmons / Arizona Daily Star