IF you'll recall, in our last
seminar on politics I mentioned that in a representative
democracy, politics is the fusion of two separate professions:
campaigning and governing. The art of scheming to acquire power and
the art of wielding power.
Also mentioned before were the weirdos who make careers out of
politics (they are actually no weirder than computer programmers,
though their personality disorders tend toward more the extroverted
end of the Table of Mental Abberation). These people are trying to
gain political power, almost certainly at your expense. But they're
working on it full time and you're not. What they know is that
political power is a pyramid scheme, and that while you almost
certainly cannot get as much as you want, you can get more than you
deserve. There is a secret, but not a hidden one. The secret is voting.
"Yeah, right, get real," you say. "Voting? There's no way my vote
will count!" Yes, this is true. Even if you live in Ohio or Florida,
your vote tomorrow will count so little as to be negligible. Some
people in my rhetorical position would counter this argument by bringing up obscure Alaskan elections decided by a margin of one vote. I think
this does a disservice to democracy so I prefer to stipulate the point
and lure you into a false sense of complacency.
The reason your vote counts for so little is that you're not
the only person in the country. You're just one person and there are
hundreds of millions of other people who could vote if they wanted to. Many of them do! We each think of life as a narrative
where we are the star, but the surest way to shatter that illusion,
besides looking up at the night sky, is to look at election results.
If you live, like me, in a state like California or Texas, you have
seen this happen in many presidential elections. The people of most
states have such similar demographics that their electoral votes are
taken for granted and nobody pays attention to them. Sure, their votes
are important in the aggragate. Without their electoral votes--the
accumulated votes of you, the New Yorkers and Tennesseeans--the campaign
taking those electoral votes for granted would surely falter. But
your vote? No.
A standard response to the my-vote-is-meaningless complaint is that
you should make sure your vote reflects an informed decision on your part. This
almost makes sense but not quite. Obviously you should decide
how to vote via some rational or at least emotional process. Flipping a coin to decide your vote is about the same as not
voting at all--the only thing your vote has going for it is that it's
yours and not some lousy coin's. Even voting based on a last-minute gut
instinct (which is what I do when I can't decide) is better than
voting randomly. But the system of elections won't treat a coin-flip
vote any differently from a well-considered vote.
However it does treat two votes differently from one vote. What you need to do is create or take advantage of a vote
multiplier. Once you reach your decision, you need to somehow convince more
people to vote the same way. Then in a sense you'll all share that
block of n votes. Your own vote will still count for basically
nothing, but mentally you'll take credit for all n of the
votes. You'll feel better, and in a real sense you'll have more power.
Before the Internet this meant convincing other people in your
state to vote with you, and most such attempts were crushed into
dust by large margins of victory and the Electoral College. But
now, thanks to HTTP and SMTP, you can reach people in the states over
which the Demographics Fairy has waved her swing-state wand. Assuming
you can afford it, it's even easy to even go to such exotic locales
and help run get-out-the-vote operations, where you get people who
were already sympathetic to your cause to actually go into the dang
voting booth already. And thanks to a polarized electorate, your
efforts might actually make enough of a difference to satisfy your
average-citizen-level lust for raw power!
This feels like you're gaming the system, but it is actually how
the system is supposed to work. People aren't supposed to be furtive
about voting, as though it were an annual bout of flatulence. You're supposed to argue
and convince other people. I don't do this because I am really really
shy, but that's how you do it if you want to do more than just pull
the lever. Working for a campaign, or running for office yourself, is
just an attempt to get a bigger vote multiplier. A good campaign uses vote multipliers to best advantage and helps people create their own vote multipliers.
I have made out amazingly well on this score with respect to this
presidential election. I spent three months working for a political
campaign which ultimately failed but had some long-term effects on the
race. Some software I wrote for that campaign got picked up by one of
the major campaigns (thanks to Josh Hendler) and provided vote
multipliers to lots of other people. My totally random estimate is
that I've had as much effect on the political campaign as maybe 100 or
1000 people actually casting votes in Ohio, which is huge and way more than I expected. That plus the California vote
I'm going to cast tomorrow, which would be useless even if I weren't going to vote along with most of California. But I'm not complaining, because I
now understand why my vote is useless and I know what I can do
in the future to feel like I made a real contribution to an election
The other way to get a bigger vote multiplier is to lower your
scope. Stop obsessing over the national election! That's where
everyone is paying attention. Look at a state or local
election. Because fewer people are interested, your vote counts for
proportionally more and any vote multipliers you get are automatically
Unfortunately, the reason people aren't as interested in local
politics is because usually, local politics are incredibly boring
(this is eg. why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of
California). Some say that lowering your scope is not for them
precisely because local politics are incredibly boring. What they do
not realize is that all forms of politics are incredibly boring. A
major political technique is making your opponents so bored that they
give up. Anything exciting is probably a distraction put up by one
faction, or something that hundreds of people are already working on
and that you can't get close to unless you want to make a career out
of it (I don't say this to denigrate making a career out of such
things, but it's not for me). This can have a real effect on your life, though often more than portions of politics that get orders of magnitude more attention.
I wanted to get this one out now, but soon I will do a
companion piece to this one talking about the other half of politics and how to get the most out of your government dollar. The
election is tomorrow, but the government we will always have with us.
Also, go vote tomorrow if you're American. I trust you to be
reasonable, and I don't know any of you who live in swing states, so
I'm not going to lecture you about who to vote for. But think about
this for next time. I don't want you to think that you are powerless, because it's not true. You just don't have as much power as you need to set everything right. You need to get some other people on your side.
 Anyway, coins have previous presidents on them, which opens
them up to bias. If you flip a quarter you're likely to find yourself
voting a straight Federalist ticket.
 Let me state for the record that I think the Electoral College
is a bad idea and that I will still think it's a bad idea even if it
gives me a result I like, say, tomorrow.
PS: There is a whole darker side to get-out-the-vote operations,
where you run the vote multiplier equation in reverse and try schemes
to get your opponent's supporters to not vote. I know from
experience there can be a huge temptation to think "Man, if only the
other guy's supporters would just not vote, we'd have it made" (I had
similar thoughts during the Feb. 2 primaries, and I was trying really
hard not to). There's a big gap between thinking this, though, and saying
it, and another big gap between saying it and doing something about it.
I could go on and on about this and the anatomy of GOTV pathologies
(even on the non-darker side) in general, but this piece is already
long enough. I can go into more detail if you want. For now, I will
end on a partisan note by pointing out that one of the major American political parties
benefits, on average, when one more person votes; the other one
benefits, on average, when one fewer person votes. Even with my
cynical view of human nature I would rather align myself with the
first party or, if I couldn't bring myself to do that, try to make the
second party more like the first in this regard.