Voting is a Low-Fidelity Signal

Maybe you care about politics; maybe you don't. But if you do care, you should vote. Every time. For every office on the ballot. Even if you think your vote won't matter. Because it does.

When we vote for someone, our primary purpose is to elect a candidate to office. However, that vote is often a means to some other political end – some change in either our laws or how they are executed. Unfortunately, even if our candidate wins, it’s never guaranteed that they’ll achieve the political end we hoped for.

Victorious candidates don’t always have a clear picture of why they were elected, even if they claim to. This is because voting is a low-fidelity signal. It is (usually) a simple, binary checkbox, and cannot represent the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) the voter has for the candidate. Neither can it indicate which of many possible reasons a voter may have for supporting that particular candidate, which may be nothing more than opposition to every other candidate on the ballot.

Candidates campaign on a platform, usually staking out a broad range of policy positions. Winners often interpret their victory as a mandate to pursue those policies, but voters themselves have many possible reasons to support a candidate. Some will enthusiastically endorse the candidate’s breadth of views, sure, but others may only care about a single issue. Still others will vote for someone they don’t particularly care for because all of the other candidates appear worse. Heck, many votes may be won from people who picked a candidate for completely irrelevant reasons, such as name recognition, or the candidate being physically attractive. Unfortunately, all of those votes count equally.

So, how should an elected official proceed? Obviously, campaign donors can have an outsize influence on which policies to pursue, and polling on individual issues will shape political action. But the votes themselves, and their interpretation, play a role as well.

Margin of victory matters – A candidate who wins by a large margin can feel free to indulge their partisan base, whereas narrow victors must hew closer to the middle if they wish to retain popular support and win re-election.

Voting population matters – Older votes vote reliably, and in numbers, which is why their issues get so much attention. Young voters are relatively ignored because they don’t show up to the polls. Gender and ethnicity differences, and their relative support of the winning candidate, can greatly influence whether their issues get the attention they deserve.

Apathy is indistinguishable from disgust – There’s no way for anyone interpreting voting results to know if voters abstained from voting because they couldn’t stand any of their eligible candidates, or if they just didn’t care. Negative advertising will play into this as a strategy – if I can’t convince you to vote for my candidate, I can at least try and convince you to not show up at all.

Candidates (and money) show up where the voters are - Quality candidates will tend to run for offices they think they can win, and money, volunteers and other resources will tend to do seek out the same. A strong showing for a losing candidate will encourage others to run in the future.

In all of these cases, the advantage goes to voters who show up and vote. Even if your favored candidate is going to win by a lot. Even if your favored candidate is definitely going to lose. Even if you don’t like any of the candidates at all. If you want your issues, or even your demographic, addressed, you should vote.

Basically, if you care, even a little, you should vote.

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