Why "Losing Votes" Still Matter

I’m pro-voting. If you’ve read this blog for a while (a day or two even), you may have noticed.

This afternoon, I tweeted a couple of thoughts to encourage others in the U.S. to vote tomorrow.

(More on this view.)

This second tweet received some argument. The person responding agreed with me that people should still vote, but called voting in states that swing solidly red or blue a “purely symbolic gesture”. Except in the sense that communication is symbolic, I strongly disagree that there’s anything symbolic about voting even when your candidates have no chance of winning. I disagree even when you have no candidates on the ballot who represent your views.

Here are several ways that votes for a candidate who doesn’t win still make a difference.


Losing votes change the percentage of a population a winning politician can honestly claim to represent. Does this always matter? No, but sometimes it does. The percentage of votes in an election that goes to a politician is a broad measure of the political support their ideas have. That can make a difference in other politicians’ calculations.

Assume, for example, that a governor is presented with a bill they don’t like that was passed by a group of legislators with relatively weak backing. That governor can more comfortably veto the bill than they could if it had been passed by a group of wildly popular legislators because they know there are fewer voters likely to be upset. Or other legislators may choose not to spend their political capital helping a legislator whose support is shaky enough they may not return after the next election.

If you don’t vote, especially in “hopeless” races, your support of the winning candidate is assumed.

Political Investment

Parties, PACs, and prospective candidates also pay attention to vote margins. They use these to decide how to spend their own resources. Politicians are more likely to run against incumbents they view as weak. Parties are more likely to recruit candidates to run against weak incumbents. Parties and PACs are more likely to recruit donors for and spend their own ad money supporting candidates challenging incumbents they view as weak.

You can see that in the Minnesota race for U.S. Senator this year. Al Franken has consistently polled ahead of his challenger. There’s never been any real chance McFadden would win. However, Franken won his seat in 2008 by a 312 vote margin. That made him look vulnerable to analysts even though none of his biggest weaknesses as a candidate (being known primarily as a comedian, not being seen as statesman-like) carried over from that election to this one. That’s brought lots of outside money to this race, though not as much as we would likely have seen if Franken’s approval ratings weren’t high.

If you don’t vote, people forecasting elections will assume you’ll stay home again next time. They won’t take a risk on the races that affect you.

Encouraging Voters

People don’t like it when “their team” loses. They like it even less when they’ve invested time, energy, and emotion in that team. So they don’t want to invest in hopeless causes. Nobody wants to be the first to take the risk, even if risking losing exactly what is required to make it possible to win.

If you don’t vote, you add to the perception that your local elections aren’t winnable.

Improved Media

As Toronto geared up to vote last month, a friend there retweeted another voter looking for tips on getting more information on school elections. I told that voter that we had a good, hyperlocal news outlet doing extensive coverage on our school board elections in Minneapolis. I suggested it was worth checking to see whether they had anything similar there. They didn’t. The person who had asked for the information congratulated me on living in Minneapolis.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we have good elections coverage in a state that traditionally turns out to vote in high numbers. Our pride in voting translates to more people wanting to vote well, which translates in turn into an interested readership for very local races. Admittedly, the Twin Cities Daily Planet has been particularly good in this regard (disclosure: I occasionally do music reviews for them for no pay beyond media access), but our neighborhood and smaller town papers have been incredibly useful to me over the last several years that I’ve been researching all our election choices.

If you don’t vote, you don’t create the audience for this very important source of civic news.

Winning Elections

The thing to remember about hopeless cases is that hope, or lack thereof, doesn’t change things. People’s actions change things.

Lilandra has a good post up about the situation in Texas right now. Wendy Davis has consistently been polling behind in the governor’s race despite being in a state in which white people are no longer the majority, a state that saw one of the highest-profile assaults on women’s rights in recent history, despite plenty of competition. The votes are there, despite what the polls say, if people were to get out and vote. As has been pointed out several places in the last couple of days, Ann Richards didn’t win in polls, but she won where it counted, in the election. When people say a single vote can’t make a difference, they forget that every vote is a single vote.

Even if a few voters can’t make a difference in a statewide election, they certainly can on a local level. I have a friend who sits on a county board in a rural county. In his last election, he didn’t bother to collect the signatures required to get him on the printed ballot, because he realized he could win as a write-in candidate with fewer votes than than required to officially run. He won with five votes. Not by five votes, but with five votes out of the nine people who voted in that race. He’s an extreme outlier due to his geographical circumstances, but he still illustrates the principle that sometimes it takes far fewer votes to swing an election than you might think.

If you don’t vote, you never give yourself the opportunity to make that difference.

So get out there and vote, even if your situation is “hopeless”. If you hate all of your choices, come up with a write-in slate with some friends and vote for them together. But vote. It makes a difference even if your candidates don’t win.

Why "Losing Votes" Still Matter
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7 thoughts on “Why "Losing Votes" Still Matter

  1. 1

    Voting always matters. I blog at Daily Kos where it is all about elections, from school board to U.S. President. Our many thousands of members, mostly in the U.S. but also from quite a few other countries, are sure that wherever we live, it is worth it to work for candidates and issues and Get Out The Vote.

    I’ll be putting in 14+ hours as a poll worker tomorrow. Voting matters.

  2. 6


    “I disagree even when you have no candidates on the ballot who represent your views.”

    Do you not feel this is somewhat contradictory to :

    “The percentage of votes in an election that goes to a politician is a broad measure of the political support their ideas have.”

    In the case of an essentially foregone electoral conclusion, in which one particular candidate is certain to win ( whose ideas are contrary to one’s own ) and is running against an opponent whose policies are also anathema, it seems more prudent to refrain from voting. I realise in the US it’s essentially a two party system, so it’s questionable who would fill the void if voters in one constituency felt egregious disdain for both Democratic and Republican candidates; but for me, someone living in a country with a very fragmented political party landscape, refraining from voting because no one on the ballot box aligns with my ideals would make sense. Consistently below average low voter turnout in a constituency with few inter party rivals could potentially signal apathy towards their respective parties, and encourage others to run candidates in opposition. Continuing to cast votes among representatives of existing parties, even if they don’t align with one’s ideas, would imply acceptance and support for their policies, and in my opinion, discourage other parties from fielding alternative candidates.

    I realise you were referring to percentage of votes and not percentage voter turnout, but I think the latter is relevant to the discussion.

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