During the last presidential election, many liberals said, "If you didn't vote, then you helped Donald Trump win."

What they mean, of course, is that you should have voted for Hillary Clinton, which would in fact have hurt Trump's campaign.

However, a republican could use the same argument: "If you didn't vote, then you effectively voted for Hillary."

So, if you didn't vote, then you voted for Hillary and Trump both?

Is there a name for this fallacy or type of reasoning?

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    You're either with us, or against us, typically interpreted as a false dilemma. "He who is not with me is against me" goes back to the gospel of Matthew, although in the gospel of Mark Jesus says the opposite:"Whoever is not against us is for us". Since "help" is relative to an implicit default "If you didn't vote, then you helped the other guy win" is true for both sides, the word is simply used equivocally. It is a "help" relative to two different alternatives.
    – Conifold
    Jun 20 '20 at 21:51
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    Just as a point of terminology, being fallacious is a quality of arguments. Statements, properly speaking, are true or false.
    – Paul Ross
    Jun 21 '20 at 8:55
  • This is a type of conditional reasoning (plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-conditionals) and is usually understood in possible world semantics. In Germany we use a similar statement: "If you didn't vote, then you strengthened the (right) extreme parties." Such a statement is perfectly true, provided that (1) the extremist voters will actual vote, (2) your vote wouldn't be an extremist one. This type of reasoning relates the presumed necessity that the extremists will vote, with the open possibility whether you are going to vote or not. Jun 22 '20 at 6:46
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    There is no fallacy. If you did not vote instead of voting for Hillary, you helped Trump. If you did not vote instead of voting Trump, you helped Hillary. If you just did not vote, it's unknown who you helped by not voting, it would depend on who you would have voted for. Shortening a statement does not create a fallacy if the intended full meaning is obvious from the context.
    – tkruse
    Jun 23 '20 at 12:52

I find statements such as these are almost always associated with an assumption that there was only one possible valid vote you could have cast, and it was for someone other than the political party named (in your examples, "Trump" or "Clinton"). The people who make such statements tend to be of the opinion that you could never possibly have voted for the other guy, because they're too bad.

So the fundamental fallacy is one of an unsupported assumption. However, if you are in a situation where there was only one person you could possibly have voted for (and only you know if that was true), then the most one could mathematically state is that a failure to vote is equivalent to half of a vote for the other person.


There was undoubtedly at the time of the last presidential election, as there is today, a large number of people who really loathed Trump but still couldn't be bothered to vote. Nagging these people by arguing that they had as good as voted for Trump may be an effective way of getting them to think again next time there is a presidential election with the same loathable Trump in the lineup.

Arguments are used to get people to change. They are only secondarily "logical". As logical argument, this one is indeed fallacious since you only vote for any candidate by actually putting a ballot paper in the ballot box. However, this argument is never meant to be understood literally. Rather, it just means that not voting for one candidate has the same effect as voting for the other candidate, which seems true.

  • The last part isn't true at all. 45% of the voting age population did not vote in the 2016 election. The popular and electoral vote tallies would have looked very different had they all voted for one candidate or another. If not voting for candidate A has the same effect of voting for candidate B, and not voting for B has the same effect as a vote for A, then not voting at all has the self-contradictory effect of voting for both A and B. Jun 22 '20 at 19:15

Overall, the question seems to arise similarly from a not infrequent misapprehension that ¬p → p is a logically interesting statement, which is formally nothing but stating p. Informally, it is not interesting to be worthy of a name, either. What makes it really interesting is that it is a rhetorical paradox. As a rhetorical paradox, it is argumentatively legitimate.

The profound relation between logic and rhetoric is a fascinating area of investigation, but I suppose, it has been understudied beyond their historical connections.


"Voting may or may not yield the outcome individuals want, but without it, there is no democratic society."-S Davidson, WVU.

If you choose to not vote (whatever the philosophical reason), someday you may not have the choice.

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