My wife and I always argue about elections. I'm ashamed to admit that I often take a very utilitarian approach to them. No election in my lifetime has been decided by a single vote, so my own particular vote has no value, so it doesn't matter if I vote or not. So when it's convenient for me to do so, I vote; when it's not, I don't feel guilty about not voting.
My wife, by contrast, is much more civic-minded. She argues--and rightly so--that it is our civic duty to vote, it is a precious right, won by the blood and toil of the generations that went before us, and we have a moral obligation not to waste this precious liberty.
I don't actually disagree with her, at least in my heart of hearts. But in practical terms I know that it will make no difference at all whether I vote or not. When I've said this to my wife, she points out what is often said in such contexts: "Well if everybody thought the way you did...". The trouble with this sort of objection is that it is a totally non-practical argument offered against a practical one. In real life it simply is not the case that "everybody" thinks this way. A lot of people think that voting is a waste of time, and they don't do it, but plenty of other people do vote--enough of them, in fact, that it would not make any difference if I were to vote. The in-principle argument is good only for showing why democracy requires such things as "civic duties"--it does not provide a compelling reason for any one person to actually head out to the polls.
Some of you may now be starting to understand why my wife hates philosophy. Others may find themselves secretly agreeing that a single vote makes no difference. These latter folks may be surprised to learn that I have only missed one or two elections in thirty years. I've always felt that it was important to vote, even when it makes no difference to the outcome. There are certain times when, in some abstract moral sense, it can be important to register one's preferences in an official way. If you are living in Germany in the 1930s, you want to be voting against Nazi candidates even if you know that the Zeitgeist is against you. You accomplish two things, even if you do not affect the outcome. First, you add your number to those who are dissenting, thus giving folks a better idea of who stands for what. Second, you raise a kind of objection to what is going on. If one is strictly a utilitarian it may not make any difference if objections are raised or not, but if one is not a consequentialist than it can be important to raise a cry even when no one is listening.
The importance of voting was also brought home to me in another way back in the 1990s when the voting structures in South Africa changed. I remember listening to news reports on NPR of the first free elections in South Africa--there were interviews with blacks who spoke very movingly of their experiences at the polls, and I felt ashamed that I had ever even considered not voting.
So today I'm off to the polls myself. There aren't many important issues on the ballot in my area, but just being free to do it is, perhaps, reason enough to go.