Voters stand in line outside a polling place in Arlington, Virginia. 2008.

Since we are in a presidential election year, with campaigns already revealing bitter divisions, Americans are about to be carpet-bombed with assertions that “every vote counts,” and that in consequence, “you must vote” (the “right” way, of course).  

It is hard not to find evidence. Over half a year before the election, a Google search of “Every vote counts” not only turned up 638,000 hits, but plenty of websites ready to pound that message into every head by way of every medium. “You must vote” was not far behind, with 598,000 hits. 

The eagerness with which so many make that pitch means that any story that might provide a hook on which to hang such conclusions will be used for that purpose. However, that does not mean those pre-ordained conclusions logically follow.

A good example is the recent congressional primary in the Silicon Valley in which Evan Low and Joe Simitian tied with 30,249 votes each. Yue Stella Yu’s article at CalMatters even led with “Every vote counts” in the title. 

However, that conclusion doesn’t follow from the illustration.

To begin with, Low and Simitian tied for second in the race, not first. Those who voted for one of them didn’t elect anyone or determine the fate of any law or initiative. The only reason the tie mattered is that under California’s top-two primary system, it means three will make the general election instead of two. 

For it to actually make a difference, such votes would require that one of the second place primary finishers wins the general election. But they have a way to go to catch the leading primary vote-getter, Sam Liccardo, who had 38,489 votes, to 30,249 for each of the runners-up.  But even then, a vote, say, for Mr. Low in the primary could possibly result in Mr. Simitian winning the general election, or vice versa, which would not have given either of them what he or she wanted.  

Further, all three candidates are well-established Democrats who have already held elective office, running in what the Los Angeles Times described as “a coveted, safely Democratic district,” even for a very blue state, with a “more than 3-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans.” It is hard to see how “who wins” in this case would make any difference in such things as who has a majority in Congress or what policies are ultimately adopted as a result. 

A recent development in the Santa Clara County race further calls into question whether every vote counts. A voter (which one of the second place finisher’s camp asserted was a “scheme orchestrated with the top primary vote-getter) has requested a recount which “would almost certainly change the final tally.” So as long as someone is willing to pay for a manual recount (expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars in this case), even a tie vote is unlikely to remain a tie, so a voter who created a tie would no longer have their vote count in determining the winner. In this case, the ongoing recount is a machine recount, combined with a manual recount of 28 challenged ballots, which seems to offer a similar guarantee of breaking the tie at a lower cost. And ironically, a spokesman for the top vote-getter in the primary could claim the reason was that “every vote should be counted.” 

So this example is far from a demonstration that “every vote counts” is true. In fact, it would be truer to say all it shows is that someone must add the word virtually at the beginning of the claim that “no individual vote ever counts” (determines the outcome) in a large numbers election. That is, it doesn’t mean your vote matters, but rather that there is an exceedingly slight chance that it might matter.

Some have likened such a result to finding a four-leaf clover on one’s first try. But since websites commonly cite 10,000-to-1 for such an effort (but one large study put it closer to 5,000-to-1), I think that overestimates the odds. 

Not only are there federal elections, but elections in 50 states, in 3,143 counties and “county equivalents,” and 780 cities with more than 50,000 residents (and nearly 20,000 total cities), in addition to nearly 40,000 independent special districts. And how rarely are even near-ties encountered? With such a large sample size to draw from, I think the odds are far worse than finding a four-leaf clover. I think that makes the odds worse than other rare events such as the 14,000-to-1 odds of dying in a volcanic eruption (US Geological Survey), or the 19,556-to-1 odds of being injured by fireworks this year (National Safety Council), or the even the 74,817-to-1lifetime odds of dying from an asteroid impact (NASA). Such infrequent cases where your vote might change the outcome are a far cry from proving that “every vote counts” or that “you must vote.” In virtually every case, the outcome will remain unchanged regardless of whether you voted for the winner, a loser or “none of the above.”  

Suppose that, despite the poor odds, your vote did change the result of an election. Every vote might be counted, but not every vote would count in the sense of changing the outcome in one’s desired direction. In fact, in every election, every outnumbered voter will get something other than what they wanted.

Further, we should notice the irony of how many of those candidates who have vociferously insisted that “every vote counts” push policies that deny vast numbers of Americans the right to get what they would vote for if given the choice.

Every price floor and every price ceiling overrides some individuals’ economic votes. Regulations and almost uncountable mandates make many people owners of their property, who can determine its uses, in little but name only. Government restrictions of entry and competition, including international protectionism, licensing and antitrust laws, deny many who would like to offer their services for sale in open competition the ability to do so. So it would seem that even a determinative vote primarily matters in determining who will take away individuals’ ability to choose for themselves.

Those who proclaim obeisance to the principle that “every vote counts” are, in fact, telling lies to get power via the only political votes that matter — those for the winner—to override millions of Americans’ votes about what they would do with themselves and their property, if they were allowed to choose. And there are very few choices we must share in common. We should recognize that hypocritical hyperbole both for what it is, and what it is not — a means to defend our unalienable rights or liberty and justice for all.

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