Saturday, July 23, 2016

Elections are Discrete. Opinions are Continuous

As in most elections, we are seeing some people exhibit an immature attitude toward voting that goes something like this:

“My candidate did not win at the convention. Therefore, I’m not voting.”


“My candidate did not win at the convention. Therefore I’m voting for [insert name of some fringe party candidate here].”

That’s their prerogative. But if they do vote that way, they need to understand that they are really throwing their vote away in an unnoticeable protest that may make them feel good but helps elect a person they abhor.

Time for a quick lesson in statistics. Bear with me. Even if you hated math in school, this is an everyday life reality.

A variable, or quantitative property of a thing, can be discrete or continuous. The web site explains the difference clearly and succinctly:

Suppose the fire department mandates that all fire fighters must weigh between 150 and 250 pounds. The weight of a fire fighter would be an example of a continuous variable; since a fire fighter's weight could take on any value between 150 and 250 pounds.

Suppose we flip a coin and count the number of heads. The number of heads could be any integer value between 0 and plus infinity. However, it could not be any number between 0 and plus infinity. We could not, for example, get 2.5 heads. Therefore, the number of heads must be a discrete variable.

Now, apply these definitions to elections.

Opinions are continuous (and for purists, multivariate). Take, for example, capital punishment. You may believe that capital punishment is good and is a deterrent and should be an option in all murder and rape verdicts. You may believe that capital punishment is barbaric, counterproductive, and should never be an option. Or your beliefs may be somewhere in between; for example, it should only be used when the victim is a law enforcement officer.

Since there are many issues, and many shades of continuous opinion, there’s an excellent possibility that where you sit on the opinion spectrum is not where any candidate sits. You have to choose the candidate whose philosophy is closest to yours and accept the fact that he or she is not in lock step with you.

On the other hand, elections are discrete. You can’t cast three quarters of a vote for Hillary Clinton and one quarter of a vote for Donald Trump. Sure, you can vote for Jill Stein or David Duke, but the reality of today’s electoral system in the United States is that if you vote is to count, you need to select from a field of two.

Maybe you agree with Hillary Clinton on most issues, but are really troubled by her trade policy. If you want your vote to count, you should vote for her anyway, and simultaneously support an advocacy organization that seeks to move trade policy in a direction you’re comfortable with. If you stay home, or vote for a third party candidate, you’re throwing away your vote for the portions of Clinton’s platform that you agree with, and making it easier for Donald Trump to gain ground.

You may not be enamored of Hillary Clinton’s approach. But this election will be closer than many of us who live in the progressive bubble realize. Take it from an early Bernie Sanders supporter – anything less than full-throated support for Hillary Clinton helps put a racist, misogynistic xenophobe one step closer to the White House. You may have to hold your nose to vote for Hillary, but it’s the right thing to do. And be sure to vote for progressive candidates down the line in your home district, and support similar candidates across the nation.

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