A friend of mine posted a piece recently called “Don’t Vote or Die“. When I saw it, I posted some comments disagreeing with a few of his points. Since then, a lot of my friends have been making comments about not voting in the upcoming election. Every time I hear them, I think of this piece and I feel like I need to write a response.
The gist of the piece is that our whole system is so screwed up and the political spectrum so narrow that voting doesn’t really do any good. He thinks that a non-vote should be taken as a protest against this system. He’s not telling anyone not to vote, but he is saying that a non-vote deserves respect. I actually agree with many, if not most, of his points, but I arrive at the opposite conclusion.
There are two reasons for voting that I want to state without arguing for them. They are personal beliefs. I would like it if people shared them, but I see no good reasons for others to believe as I do. One is that I believe very strongly in the importance of ritual, be they religious, secular, public, or private. I believe that the act of voting is a ritual. It is a ritual that connects communities and makes the individual more than an individual. The other reason is that I, and most Americans, did literally nothing to become American. I am an American simply because of the accident of my birthplace. Voting, going to jury duty, etc. are, to me, the only way that I make my citizenship more than just an accident.
Having gotten those out of the way, I want to respond more directly with the piece and other things my friends have been saying. And these are things I will argue for.
First of all, a protest doesn’t do any good if it is not heard. Not voting is not a real protest because it is not heard. Everyone knows that only 40-60% of Americans bother voting. The people in power mostly don’t care. They just focus on the people who actually do vote. So, it’s not a good protest if these non-voters are not noticed.
Next is the idea that all politicians are the same. This is simply not true. There are many significant differences between any two politicians. Paul Ryan doesn’t believe in man made climate change and Hilary Clinton does. Mike Huckabee doesn’t think women should be able to make their own reproductive decisions and Deval Patrick does. I think there are two main reasons why people miss or downplay the differences. The first is that there are also many similarities between any two politicians. Most American politicians believe that capitalism is a good economic system and most believe that security is important. It is easy to say, “They’re all a bunch of capitalists,” and miss the very real differences. The other reason is that people tend to notice the higher offices and ignore the undercard. The higher the office, the more centrist the politician is likely to be. This is just common sense. When a person needs to appeal to a larger audience, that person needs to move towards the center. So, it is true that presidential contenders have a lot in common. But their differences are still important, just ask any gay couple. And, in local elections, the politicians can be wildly different.
Speaking of local elections, when people don’t vote as a protest, they are normally protesting the higher offices like president or governor. In virtually every election, however, there are other races being decided. Those races will often matter to voters directly. They will affect the school system, whether the roads get repaved, the mill rate, and a host of other things that matter in our day to day lives. Even if a person doesn’t want to vote for the president because it doesn’t make a difference, she should vote for the local people because it really does make a difference.
This is a perfect segue into the next reason people give for not voting. They think that their votes don’t make a difference. Watching sports convinced me of the problem with this view a long time ago. I got sick of announcers saying, “Ortiz scored the game winning run,” when the score was 5-4. All five of those runs were equally important. It’s not like Pedroia ought to be saying he shouldn’t have bothered scoring his run because it didn’t make a difference. And it doesn’t matter if it is a blowout. If the final score had been 10-4, which runners should have stayed at third rather than score because their run didn’t make a difference? It doesn’t matter if an election is decided by 1 vote or 10,000,000 votes. Each person who votes, whether for the winner or the loser, makes a difference in the outcome. And, if 40% of the voters don’t vote, that just amplifies the power of those who do vote.
Another reason people give for not voting is that they hate both of the candidates. This reason comes in a variety of flavors. One is that they find the candidates’ personalities distasteful. Another is that they have a pet issue which neither candidate is strong on. And another is that neither candidate is perfect. In all three, I can only say that we need to look at the bigger picture. There is literally not one person on the planet that I agree with on everything – not my wife or my parents or my brothers or my daughter. Why on Earth would I expect to agree with a politician on everything? And I don’t like many people, but that has nothing to do with whether they are good at their jobs or not. Of course I would like to find a politician whom I like and agree with, but that isn’t necessary or expected. I vote for the person who best represents me. That usually means the one who I agree with more often. And failing that, it means the one that I think is more intelligent and flexible. I have yet to vote in an election where that more modest criteria failed to give me an easy decision.
One of the more absurd reasons I’ve heard for not voting is that with the political gridlock it doesn’t matter who gets elected because they won’t be able to do anything anyway. This is just misunderstanding our political system. There are tons of things that the government does every day that are not affected by gridlock but do affect everyone’s lives. There are spending decisions, executive orders, emergency preparedness decisions, criminal and civil court proceedings, and many, many other things that happen despite gridlock. It stands to reason that if the government will continue to operate, we should try to see that the most competent people are controlling those operations.
Another absurd reason I heard for not voting is that it would be good if the bad guy gets elected because that would motivate the good guys to get involved. Even if it worked, it wouldn’t benefit anyone. Things can be ruined much more easily than they can be fixed. If electing someone bad worked to get someone good, then the someone good would spend her whole time in office fixing things rather than running things.
Finally, real change happens from the bottom up. It is easy to look at the president and congress and complain, but they are in the worst position to enact real change. If you want education reform, focus on your board of ed. If you want cheaper housing, focus on your mayor. If you want better public works, focus on your town council. Luckily, these are the races where each and every vote makes the biggest difference. So, please vote.