On Throwing Away Your Vote

Thirty years ago, my grandmother lived in Veneta, a small town in Oregon. There was a proposal on the ballot that year to pass a bond issue to build this or that public facility. My parents recommended to her that she vote against it in order to help reduce her future taxes. She argued that her vote would not count. They persisted. She went to the polls and voted against it. The proposal produced a tie vote. The bond issue therefore did not pass.

On that day, my grandmother did not throw away her vote.

That outcome has stuck in my memory for a long time. I see it as my patriotic duty to vote no on all bond issues. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a bond issue I didn’t hate. Whenever there is a bond issue on the ballot, I’ll be at the polls to vote against it.

Not only is this my patriotic duty in my lifetime battle against bloated civil government, it is in my own self-interest. A failed bond issue is a blow against future taxes. My vote might just produce a tie. Think of the frustration that this would produce for local bureaucrats. “We were so close. If only we had . . . .” There is nothing like “if only” to make bureaucrats suffer. When it comes to bureaucrats, I can do no better than to quote Bobby Fisher, age 15, on why he enjoyed playing chess so much. “I love to see ’em squirm.”

Oh, yes: I almost forgot. There are people running for office. I might as well vote for someone while I’m in the booth.

But which candidate deserves my vote?


In 1966, Ronald Reagan was running against liberal San Francisco mayor (but I repeat myself) George Christopher for the Republican nomination. The outcome of that election would re-shape the twentieth century. I did not know this at the time. Reagan vs. Christopher. Who deserved my vote?

William Penn Patrick, that’s who!

Bill Patrick owned Holiday Magic, a multi-level marketing company that sold cosmetics. He was rich. He was vocally conservative. He was an unknown. He didn’t have a chance.

I voted for him.

I was convinced that Reagan’s conservatism in 1966 was mostly rhetorical. I did not trust him to stay the course. For example, I did not believe him when he said he would never sign a bill that would impose quarterly withholding on California’s taxpayers. Tax withholding had been Milton Friedman’s recommendation back in 1943, when he was working as a bureaucrat for the Treasury Department. I thought withholding would make paying taxes easier for people — a bad policy. (“When the cost of something falls, more of it will be produced.”) As I expected, Reagan reneged on this promise in his first year as governor. (The story of Reagan’s non-conservative first year as governor can be found in the rare paperback book by Kent Steffgen, Here’s the Rest of Him [1968], a book that deserves to be posted on the Web as an historical document.)

Bill Patrick received approximately 1% of the vote. Anyone who can get on a statewide ballot can get 1% if he is the only independent listed. Obviously, Patrick had wasted his money. But that was his affair. Had I wasted my vote?

It is good to discover how many voters are disaffected from the existing political system. How can we discover this statistic? By allowing independents, write-ins, and third parties. Fourth parties are fine, too.

Has any candidate won a major election as a write-in? Yes. Strom Thurmond won the Senate seat in South Carolina in 1954. He received 63% of the vote. Of course, South Carolinians regarded that seat as belonging to him by some statewide moral authority. So, this was not a representative case. But it surely did inflict lots of pain on the Democrats’ honchos in South Carolina that year. They were going to get even with old Strom, once and for all, they thought. Ha!

Some people think every citizen has a moral obligation to vote. They say, “If everybody stayed home on election day, there would be no winner.” Good point! The day that I sense that this outcome is likely, I’ll go to the polls and write in “Ron Paul.”

The argument is bogus. Not everyone will stay home. The more people who are expected to stay home, the more likely that my vote — and yours — will count. I will then go to the polls and vote. This is my grandmother’s political legacy to me. There will be a loser that day. Stick a big wad of “if only” into the ear of a politician. It will bother him for years.

Back to Bill Patrick. I had an opportunity to deny Reagan my support in 1966. That seemed like a good idea at the time. I did not throw my vote away. I registered my displeasure with the Reagan campaign. Patrick’s utter waste of his own money financed my ability, quoting Nancy Reagan, to “just say no.”

Was Patrick a fool? Yes. That money could have published some conservative books or built some orphanages or lots of other far more useful things. He was an egomaniac with more money than good sense. He later died in a plane crash. He had bought an old P-51 and crashed it. Easy come, easy go.

But he did me a favor. He gave me an opportunity to say no to Reagan. At the time, I thought that was a good idea. I did in 1967, too, when his legislative program unfolded.


All politics is local. So said Tip O’Neill, one of America’s most powerful national politicians.

There are always propositions on a ballot that deserve to be scuttled. I love to vote against them.

Most people go to the polls to vote for “their man.” He is only rarely their man. Instead, they are his career tools. At first, he will tell them what they want to hear. But the closer the election is expected to be, the more likely that he will tell the as-yet uncommitted voters what they want to hear, which is not what his true believers want to hear. He will start spouting some version of “I don’t personally believe in genocide, but I don’t oppose anyone’s right to commit it.”

Your vote counts locally, just as my grandmother’s vote counted. This is where activists should invest their time and money: where there is a possible positive payoff. No one with a controversial worldview should give a dime to a major national party when his dime could go to a local candidate, or, better yet, a last-minute postcard mailing against some bond issue.

But, my critics may reply, “local politics is not important compared to national politics.” This is another way of saying, “the average voter has no effect on anything important politically,” which is in fact the case.

National Presidential elections are rigged. They invariably are a race between Council on Foreign Relations Team A vs. Council on Foreign Relations Team B. Susan Huck pointed this out thirty years ago. The only possible exception to this rule was Calvin Coolidge’s defeat in 1924 of CFR founding member and Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis. That was because the CFR was founded in 1921, and Coolidge came in as President when Harding died in 1923.

When you vote for a major party’s Presidential candidate, you are voting for the CFR. If this is what you mean by “not throwing away my vote,” then you have a strange definition of “throwing away.”


Voting is a matter of imposing sanctions. By voting for one candidate, you are inflicting your share of pain on another. There will be a loser. He will be discouraged. His supporters will be discouraged. You have done your share in making life unpleasant for a career politician. This is a good thing.

For every benefit, there is a cost. The cost is that in inflicting this pain, you bring joy to the winner. You have done your part to bring joy into the life of another career politician.

But when you vote for a third-party candidate, you do your share to inflict pain on the loser, but you bring no joy to the winner. (An exception was voting for Nader in New Hampshire in 2000, which helped lose the crucial four electoral votes for Gore. I regard this as the political equivalent of writing in Strom Thurmond’s name in 1954. Rare.)

For every benefit, there is a cost. The cost is low when you vote for a third-party candidate. The winner has received no joy from you, and the loser has received discouragement from you.

The third-party candidate did not expect to win. His idea of joy has nothing to do with winning elections. He is not a career politician. That’s the kind of candidate I prefer to vote for.

Meanwhile, I will have voted against all the bond issues.

Don’t tell me my vote doesn’t count.


Every dime you send to a political race is a waste of your money unless there is a possibility that your money may conceivably affect the outcome of the race. So, don’t spend money on politics unless you think a win is better than a loss. It rarely is.

Every dime you send could be used to further a worthy cause. What cause is more worthy than politics? Most of them.

But if this is true of your money, isn’t it also true of your time? Every minute invested in voting could be used to do something more productive. Is watching a videotape of an old “Wheel of Fortune” show more productive?

Let me think about this.

OK, it isn’t. Voting is more productive. It’s more productive for me, which is what matters to me as a self-interested seeker of benefits in a world of scarcity. Here’s why.

I love to do my share, no matter how small, to make some career politician unhappy. Voting for a third-party candidate makes no politician happy, and it makes at least one politician unhappy: a major party’s loser, who did not get my vote. No politician is better off, and at least one politician is worse off. This is my application of Pareto’s famous law of optimality. (On this law, see Rothbard, “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics.”)

Furthermore, while I was inflicting my share of pain on a politician, I also got to vote against a bond issue.

This is better than watching a videotape of “Wheel of Fortune.” Marginally.

Sorry, Vanna, but that’s the way it is at my house.

October 14, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.

Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com