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Considered Position: Flawed Democracy – Disenfranchisement

photograph of street traffic leading up to US Capitol building

This piece begins a Considered Position series that reflects on the United States’ claim to being a “flawed democracy.” (Part II, Part III, Part IV)


2020 is an election year. As a nation, we will talk a lot about the candidates, who they are, what they stand for, and what they plan to do. But how much does that all matter if the elections themselves are broken?

As Americans we pride ourselves on our commitment to democracy. While most nations were still under monarchs, we alone managed to permanently throw off the monarchical yoke. But how democratic are we really? As this series will discuss, our government has earned its designation as a “flawed democracy.”

We will consider numerous problems of enfranchisement, minority rights, and voter participation. We will also consider how all these problems have not necessarily come from malice or stupidity. Unfortunately, it is very easy for many people, all individually rational and good-hearted, to exact great harm on our society and government.

Unlike most writing on politics, this series will not seek primarily to put blame on any group or groups. Rather, we will try to understand the systems that have incentivized people to act in ways contrary to the general interest. As much as we as Americans like to think of ourselves as free, no one is free from the influences society has on us from birth till death in all our actions.

Frequently we will consider these systems and problems through a moral lens. Most political problems and disagreements have their roots in moral disagreements. And, the Prindle Institute for Ethics holds that the only way to become better at resolving moral disagreements is to develop the skills of moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the practice of considering a moral problem from different perspectives, weighing the different moral factors at stake, and coming to an understanding of the right action or actions to take.

You might want to put on some cheerful music as this discussion of the numerous systemic problems with our electoral system is almost certain to prompt feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Got it playing? Well then, strap in as we first take a look at one of the most obvious problems with our democracy: the fact that millions of US citizens have, like American Revolutionaries once did, no representation in the governing bodies whose laws they must obey.


If you’re a citizen, if you were born in this country, if you are mentally sound, and if you have committed no crimes, then you likely have the right to vote for the president and members of Congress as soon as you turn 18. But it is only likely. It is not guaranteed. In fact, about 4 million Americans who fit all these criteria cannot vote. That’s more people than who live in the five least populous states. So why can these people not vote? Well, they don’t live in US states. Most of them live in US territories and the remaining 700,000 reside in our nation’s capital. Let us consider both of these groups in turn.

Island Territories

Most people know about Puerto Rico. It is part of the US and yet not a state, even though it has more people (3.7 million) than 20 US states. But many do not know that an additional 300,000 people live in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. American Samoans aren’t even considered citizens, only “American nationals,” though there is a court case pending challenging this classification. The reason these citizens have been denied voting rights goes back to a series of Supreme Court cases and decisions collectively referred to as the “Insular cases.”

These cases, decided in 1901, were rooted in racism and colonialism. The Court ruled that the US could possess these territories without granting their residents full constitutional rights. According to them, “those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought,” and so “the administration of government and justice according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” The designation of American Samoans as “nationals” rather than “citizens” reflects the colonial mindset. European nations often used this designation for their own colonial subjects.

Given that colonialism often has the purpose of creating military advantage and extracting economic resources for the colonizers, it makes sense why the US would not want the colonized people to have a vote. But, of course, nowadays that line of reasoning will not convince many people. We recognized now that these people are people. So why, in our “democratic” nations does this demos, Greek for “people,” not get to vote?

It comes down to a matter of constitutional law. According to the Constitution, Senators and House Representatives must be elected by the people of the States. Each state gets 2 Senators and a number of Representatives based on its population. Statehood here is critical. Any of the territories could become a state. However, statehood requires the same approval as do laws when they are passed. Both Houses and the president must agree. This will be difficult to accomplish for any territory that wishes to become a state and it always has been. Some of the most divisive politics of our nation’s history surrounded the admission of various states during the antebellum period. Few slave-holding states would be willing to vote in favor of admitting a free state and vice versa. Thus, the democratic rights of these citizens are dependent on two parties agreeing which, in recent times, agree on little.

It’s a hard sell for Republicans and for good reason: suppose you had power to make change for (what you believed to be) the better. Would you be willing to give up that potential for good just to give the right to vote to some people you know will vote (in what you believe to be) the wrong way? Denying the democratic rights of others, then, is not necessarily irrational and requires no malice towards those you disenfranchise. If you have confidence in your beliefs (which you must to hold them at all), then it makes little sense to give decision-making power to those who hold beliefs opposite yours. The issue comes down to deciding whether to preference your specific political beliefs or your broader political beliefs about the righteousness of a democratic system of government.

And there are some other legitimate worries too. First among these is a worry stemming from democratic values: Puerto Rico and other territories should only be made states if their peoples want to become states and it’s not clear that they do. Puerto Rico has regularly had referenda on statehood but no referendum has ever shown definitive public support for statehood. The latest referendum showed 97 percent of Puerto Ricans supporting statehood. However, there was only 23 percent turnout after the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party urged people to boycott the vote. Former Governor of Puerto Rico Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a member of this party, sees a number of economic and cultural problems with gaining statehood.

Another referendum is on the 2020 ballot. So we will soon see if the people of Puerto really agree with Vilá. If Puerto Ricans do not support statehood, it is hard to argue that they should be made one. The stance many politicians take, including current Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, is neither that Puerto Rico should be a state nor that it shouldn’t, but that the people of Puerto Rico should decide for themselves.

There are probably a few Americans who want to keep the historical colonial relationship we have with Puerto Rico and the other island territories, but it’s not clear that this is the reasoning driving most of those who oppose Puerto Rican statehood. On the far opposite side to those who would treat Puerto Rico as a colony are those who advocate its self-determination. The UN Special Committee on Decolonization has long demanded that Puerto Rico be allowed to be either a state or an independent nation. Most colonies, historically, have pursued independence rather than integration with the colonizing state. In fact, in 1914, Puerto Rico’s own elected Congress voted overwhelmingly for independence and was subsequently ignored.

The District of Columbia

So maybe the island territories shouldn’t have the vote. Perhaps they don’t want it. But what about somewhere that does? The District of Columbia is our nation’s capital, but it’s also a city of more than 700,000 people, none of whom have Congressional representation. In fact, while they can vote for President, they can only do so because of an amendment to the Constitution passed in 1961. And though this amendment gives them the right to vote, their votes only count as much as the least populous state, giving them 3 electoral votes, the same number as Alaska, a state with one third the population of DC.

Why didn’t the Founders give them this right in the original Constitution? Well, no one was meant to live there besides some members of the government and some support staff. Furthermore, the Founders worried that having the nation’s capital in a state would allow that state undue influence over the federal government. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist 43, they worried about “a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government” and the possibility of a state bringing “on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence.”

Even so, neither Madison nor any other of the Founders could have predicted the incredible population growth that was to come in the next two centuries. So perhaps their attitudes would have softened. Indeed, one of the slogans of the American Revolution was “taxation without representation” and this same slogan now adorns all the license plates of DC residents. DC residents pay more federal income tax per person than any other state and yet have no representation in Congress. This injustice is compounded by the fact that Congress has total dominion over DC. As part of a federal system, states have powers that Congress and the federal government cannot override. DC has no such power of self-determination. Though they can pass laws and ordinances, they can all be vetoed by Congress.

DC is an interesting case because proponents on both sides, of statehood and of the status quo, claim to be upholding basic principles of democracy. On the one hand, those who support statehood want the most basic form of democracy for DC, the right to vote and the right to self-determination. On the other hand, those who oppose it believe in the concept of “one man, one vote.” They don’t want citizens of DC to have more than their share of power over the federal government. Proponents of statehood see the issue as a dichotomy between giving DC citizens equal rights and leaving them with no rights. Opponents see it differently: either DC has no political power or they have more than other citizens for an arbitrary reason, their geographic location. Seen that way, statehood becomes a much more tangled issue.

However, not all opponents of giving DC’s citizens political rights have such defensible positions. First of all, like Puerto Rico, DC would be likely to bring more Democratic Senators and Representatives to Congress since they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in presidential elections. In fact, this was the reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave for refusing to consider DC statehood, likening the increase in the number of Democratic Senators incoherently to “full-bore socialism.”

And, again like Puerto Rico, some opposition to DC’s citizens having political rights stems from racism; Black people represent the majority of DC’s population. In fact, a number of the arguments Republican Congressmen presented in the House to oppose DC statehood did not concern the worry of Madison about state influence on the federal government at all. Rather, Republican Congressmen mostly made arguments about the largely Black city being unable to govern itself. They referenced the city’s crime rates, public school quality, and governmental corruption. These might be valid concerns if any other state with the same issues were similarly threatened with disenfranchisement. But, of course, they are not. And in any case, the question remains why any of those factors ought to affect people’s fundamental right to representation in government.

The genuineness of these concerns is also cast into doubt by the fact that they fit into a pattern of racially motivated reasoning used to support the disenfranchisement of DC’s residents. During Reconstruction, John Tyler Morgan, a former Confederate soldier and then US Senator argued that Congress had “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.” The legislation he supported — removing power that had been given to the city — was soon passed.

Even if racism does play a part in motivating opponents of DC’s statehood, they may still be right. People can argue the right things for the wrong reasons. Australia for one is also a federated state and also has its capital in a distinct territory, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), that does not have the same full rights of self-determination as do the other states. We are not a lone oddity in not wanting the people immediately around the capital to have undue power over the federal government. Unlike the US, however, the people of the ACT do have representation in their legislature. At the same time, that representation is very limited and is not proportional to the population. They have more people but fewer representatives than the state of Tasmania. This situation is similar to DC’s limited power in the Electoral College like I mentioned before.

The opposition surrounding DC’s statehood is a tangled mess of racist rhetoric and legitimate concerns that come with a federal style of government. Its supporters and opponents both base their arguments in democratic language. The same goes for Puerto Rico and the other island territories where everyone agrees that what the people say goes, only they disagree on what the people say. Therefore, excepting the racism that underpins some arguments against enfranchisement in both of these areas (and there is a lot of this), the debate is not between those who support democracy and those who don’t. Rather, it is between people with different interpretations of democracy.

Continue to Part II

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

Political Fragmentation and Experimentation

image of US map with flags of states

On Tuesday September 22nd, the conservative lawyer and political commentator David French published his new book Divided We Fall. The book provides a careful diagnosis of current American polarization, a chilling prognosis of where this polarization might lead us, and ends with a prescription that we reinvigorate American federalism by devolving power out from the federal government and back to the states.

I found Divided We Fall especially interesting because one of my favorite books published this year was Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. French and Klein end up discussing and addressing many of the same issues; French from a more conservative position and Klein from a more liberal one. As such, it is fascinating to note where they agree and where they disagree.

Both think political polarization is increasing and that other forms of division are aligning along the political spectrum. Increasingly if you disagree with someone about who should be president, then you also likely live in a different state, read different books, watch different shows, shop at different stores, and disagree about religion.

Democrats don’t just support more redistributive taxation, they also live in cities, tend towards secularism, shop at Whole Foods, read The New York Times, own a copy of Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, watch Game of Thrones, and are terrified of the political power of the oppressive conservative right. Republicans, in turn, don’t just support free-market deregulation, they also live in rural and suburban areas, regularly attend church, eat at Cracker Barrel, watch Fox News, own a copy of Tim Tebow’s Autobiography Through My Eyes, watch Walking Dead, and are terrified of the cultural power of the ideologically intolerant progressive left.

The number of ‘landslide’ districts are increasing. People increasingly live around those with similar political views. As such, those they meet in real life are likely to agree and reinforce their views. Layered atop that geographical siloing, we also find ourselves in curated online environments surrounded by those of like mind.

Both books provide an excellent overview of these issues. French’s delves more into the cultural differences between liberals and conservatives, while Klein spends much more time discussing the historical polarization between the democratic and republican parties. But the essential diagnosis is quite similar.

Though French and Klein agree almost entirely on the diagnosis, they disagree partially on the prognosis. French and Klein both worry that American politics is on a trajectory to grow increasingly bitter, and become increasingly dominated by hate and fear. However, French takes his prognosis several steps further and argues the situation could grow so bad that we should currently take seriously the possibility it leads to secession. The discussion of secession is the weakest part of the French’s book. But since I don’t want this to turn into a book review, I’ll put my particular criticism aside (interested readers can keep an eye out for a forthcoming blogpost in which I review French’s book at greater length). Whether or not you take seriously the possibility of secession, however, both French and Klein agree, and are right to agree, that the health of our democracy is compromised by continual polarization into fear-filled communities.

Now here is what is fascinating. French and Klein agree on the diagnosis and much of the prognosis, and yet, their prescriptions are radically different, indeed they are almost opposite. French calls for a renewed Madisonian federalism. He thinks that as Americans grow further and further apart ideologically, it is less and less tenable to adopt one-size fits all political solutions at the federal level. Klein, in contrast, calls for reforms to increase the effective power of the federal government. Klein thinks that we should make it easier for the government to pass sweeping federal policy because if politicians were forced to actually govern they would need to find actual solutions and, more importantly, it would create track records of policy to which voters can hold politicians accountable.

Interestingly, even here, there is a profound agreement about what is needed for reform. French and Klein both think that we need greater policy experimentation. We need policy proposals to be put into effect so that we can see what the effects are. French wants to see this occur synchronously between states. He wants California and Tennessee to both attempt sweeping health care reform. In each state attempting different solutions, what works can get more broadly adopted. As more states adopt the successful policies they can each try different refinements giving us even more useful data about what works best in what sort of states. Klein wants to see this experimentation occurs asynchronously between administrations. When democrats are in control let them pass Obamacare, when republicans are in control let them actually repeal it, and then let the American people decide which approach they actually liked.

There are lots of arguments one could make for either proposal, and you can hear many of these arguments made in this discussion between David French and Ezra Klein (given how much I liked both books I was super excited that French showed up on Klein’s podcast).

French’s central argument against Klein is that sweeping federal policy is just too dangerous in a fractured political climate. If you see the future of your nation at stake, then seeing the other side empowered to enact sweeping federal change will drive your political tribe out of its mind. And given that you receive your news from the news sources sanctioned by your tribe, you won’t even end up with the meaningful data that allows you to see when the other side’s policies actually were not so bad.

Klein has several arguments against French. Perhaps the strongest being that federal action really is just necessary. We can’t wait forty years to see the effects of state by state climate reform, we need a massive federal response to global warming and we need ten years ago. We can’t wait three years to see which state’s COVID response worked best, we needed a unified federal strategy back in March.

Both French and Klein have a point, and it is useful to just note that I think there is a plausible middle ground between their views. Perhaps what we need is a federal government that can do more, but chooses to do less. Where the federal government is able to pass sweeping policies where a federal response really is needed, but which also leaves to the states anything that need not be done at the federal level. This solution would be a form of subsidiarity — the view that problems should be tackled by the most local form of authority competent to handle the problem. Thus, if states really can adopt healthcare reform, then they should be empowered to do so. But if we require national coordination to solve the free-rider problem of fossil fuel use then the federal government should be ready and able to act.

Klein and French both draw our attention to the current problem of political polarization. It’s scary to think their solutions differ as much as they do, and makes it clear there might be no perfectly good options before us. But I think it is clear that something at least needs to be done. For now, I’d start by reading both books!

We’ve Got Politics Wrong

photograph of democratic and republican party figurines atop the American flag

In the heat of partisan divisions, it is tempting to think different sides of the dispute are deeply committed to distinct and irreconcilable political and moral principles and values that explain their disagreement: partisan rifts are about ideology, not party affiliation. However, despite the intuitive appeal of this view, we have good evidence that it’s backwards: party affiliation trumps ideology. Understanding why will clarify our thinking about politics.

First, let’s begin with an unnerving fact: your single vote doesn’t matter to the outcome of an election (except in astronomically rare cases). It isn’t hard to see why: in a large democracy, for your vote to count, it must break a tie. But there are scant opportunities for your individual vote to break any ties. As a Louisiana resident, voting in the upcoming presidential election is highly unlikely to make a difference; the state will be carried by the Republican. And the same holds, to varying degrees, up and down the ballot.

You may object that “even if an individual vote doesn’t matter in deeply blue and red states, the same isn’t true of swing states.” A swing state is likely the best chance one has to decide an election outcome with a single vote. Even this is highly unlikely: an optimistic estimate is that an individual vote has a 1-in-10 million chance, and on average about a 1-in-60 million chance, of deciding the outcome of an election. Just to get a feel for the odds: this is roughly equivalent to the odds of winning a state lottery twice. (Since no one rationally thinks that will happen, we should think the same of deciding an election with a single vote).

When I bring this point up, people often cite the U.S. Presidential election in 2000 as a case where a few votes mattered a lot. However, this is a poor response for a couple reasons. First, the fate of that election was ultimately decided by the courts; so there’s a sense in which even in that rare case, individual votes didn’t matter. Second, the fact that something unlikely happens — like someone winning the lottery — doesn’t show it will likely happen again. The fact that we focus on that particular example, at least in American politics, is itself revealing.

Partisan affiliation trumps ideology partly because a single vote doesn’t effectively influence policy; but it can signal allegiance to those in one’s tribe. The incentives at play are revealing: voters are rationally ignorant because it is rational for them to be politically ignorant. Indeed, the average voter lacks the most basic of political knowledge: which party controls the White House; which party is in favor of banning abortion; which party supports free trade. There are many examples like this. There are poor incentives to be politically informed: if an individual vote is incredibly unlikely to decide the outcome of an election, voters lack the incentive to be politically informed. It would make sense to be informed if an individual vote would likely make a difference; one would want to study to ensure their vote had the desired impact.

Sometimes political commentators argue voting only takes a few hours: one must register, pick their preferred candidates, and then vote. This is nonsense. It would only make sense if voting didn’t require knowledge. However, we should vote well if we’re going to vote; even if a single vote won’t influence the outcome of an election, voting badly in aggregate does. And voting well requires substantial expertise in economics, foreign affairs, and educational policy, to name but a few. Voting well is costly too: it is hard to undertake, requiring thousands of hours, and with high opportunity costs.

Worse still, even if someone is informed enough to vote well, there is no guarantee that they will; there’s a good chance they’ll vote badly for reasons unrelated to how informed they are. We are susceptible to what psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning’: the unconscious tendency to find arguments for conclusions we want to believe stronger than arguments for conclusions we dislike. A creationist may require a low level of evidence for her view, but require that evidence for evolution meet a much higher evidential bar. Likewise, a smoker may dismiss studies showing a link between cigarette smoke and cancer, but accept similar studies showing a relationship between trans-fat and heart disease. Consider a real-time example: the partisan divide over police and teachers’ unions. Democrats favor the latter, but not the former; Republicans are the reverse. This is odd: if one thinks police unions are corrupt because it is very hard to fire a bad cop, then by similar reasoning they should think teachers’ unions corrupt too (and vice versa). If, however, support for one’s preferred union were an exercise in signaling partisan affiliation, this strange mix of policy positions would make sense.

Everyone engages in motivated reasoning; but the more politically informed someone is, the more likely they are to engage in such reasoning. Perhaps greater political knowledge enables one to better defend their prior convictions. This speaks to an epistemic paradox at the heart of democracy: we can’t vote well without sufficient expertise; but the more politically informed we are, the more likely we are to engage in politically motivated reasoning. This is why some philosophers argue it would often be morally better to ignore politics. We lack the incentives and psychological objectivity to vote well. And given the opportunities costs of voting well, and that an individual vote isn’t worth much, civic-minded citizens among us, who sincerely want to make the world a better place, would be better off doing something other than voting, like say, working at a homeless shelter.