Paul Jacob

It's an election year, so we can expect a lot of nonsense. But more important than "who said what" and "what did he know and when did he know it" are the more general myths we vote by.

1. Your Vote Counts

If you're lucky, your vote is counted. But how much is it really worth? Even how you value your vote differs, say, from how you value the dollar you spend at the corner store.

You want a snack? For your dollar you can get a chocolate bar, or a licorice rope, or some chips. Your dollar matters, because with it you can get something you want. Whichever you prefer, it's yours. Choose the item, plunk down your dollar, and immediately you get what you want.

Not much like a vote, is it?

You'd like to be represented by Rufus T. Firefly, or not be represented by his opponent, Larson E. Whipsnade. So, you take the ballot and put a mark next to the Firefly name. Your vote is indeed counted. But does Firefly's ascent to office depend on that vote? It depends on the votes of a mess of people. If this election plays out like nearly every other in history, even had you switched your vote to Whipsnade, Firefly would have been elected. Your vote does not make a difference in the outcome.

Already 32 states have been written off as uncompetitive by either the Bush or Kerry campaign. True, in the 18 states in play, your vote might matter. But would you put you money on the counter if all you could say is you might get a product?

2. Non-Voters Are "Apathetic"

A few days before Vladimir Putin's overwhelming electoral victory in Russia, the Wall Street Journal printed an article under this heading: "Putin's Main Rival Is Apathy." On the same day, the Houston Chronicle asserted that "Voter apathy keeps growing for primaries." Neither article justified the word choice.

Use of the word "apathy" smuggles in more than a tincture of moral disapproval. The word, after all, means "lack of interest or feeling; indifference." One isn't supposed to be indifferent on matters of grave political concern.

Truth is, many people who "stay away from the polls in droves" aren't apathetic about the outcome. They often have strong preferences. But they just don't see how their vote can make a difference. And they are usually right--and not just because their vote has little instrumental value.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.