I saw one of those picture-posts in my Facebook stream this morning that read, “When you skip voting, it’s not rebellion. It’s surrender.” As one might imagine, there was a great deal of discussion in the comments section. The overwhelming majority of the responses held that if you do not vote, you do not have the right to complain about the government. Following on the heels of this claim is the implication that one has not just a right to vote but a responsibility to vote.
I side with the minority on these claims. I am stunned by how easily people will say that if you do not vote you lose the right to voice your concerns. I thought my right to liberty (including liberty of conscience and speech) was inalienable. That means neither you nor I can abrogate this right – no matter what. This right was “endowed by the Creator” — or, if you don’t like the theological flavor of that claim, we could say: We just have these rights. Period.
So my voting or not voting is immaterial to my right to say whatever I think about our government. You have zero right to silence me on the basis of my not voting. You can disagree with my ideas. You can argue against them. You can simply decide to not take them seriously. But there is no valid argument for silencing me, including an argument on the basis of my voting record.
Just to underline: you have nothing to gainsay this. So stop.
Second, if I have a right to vote, I have the correlative right not to vote. But this requires some reflection.
Voting rights, as they stand, are not inalienable. That means, someone or some group might try to curtail or eliminate this right. In fact, groups try all the time (right, Republicans?). Putting aside cynical politicking (okay, Republicans?), we generally accept that those under 18 may not vote, those with a felony conviction (in some cases) may not vote, that you must be a citizen to vote, that you may vote only once, etc. There are restrictions on voting. So voting rights are limited, which makes voting seem more like a privilege than an inalienable right such as freedom of conscience. A privilege granted by whom? By those currently in the government (legislative, executive, judicial).
So if I am granted this privilege by the powers-that-be, must I exercise it? Am I required to vote? Would it be just in a free society to order people to vote and punish them if they don’t?
And vote for whom? Those on the ballot only, or should write-ins be allowed (as they are today)? If write-ins continue to be allowed, and you force everyone (well, those you deem worthy of the privilege anyway…) to vote, and if everyone irritated by having to vote when they don’t want to comes down to the polling place and writes in their vote for their wise Aunt Sadie or whoever, what would we have then? Would that really be meaningful? Wouldn’t we have more or less the same result if those who didn’t want to vote for one of the party candidates or for a write-in candidate who has zero chance of being elected simply stayed home like they wanted to?
What should we say about those who do not vote? Do they not vote because they are apathetic, lazy, disenchanted, cynical, contented, accepting, wise, rebellious, forgetful, incompetent, statement-making…? What? I don’t think you know, do you? It is certainly not one thing that keeps people from voting.
So whether voting is a right or a privilege, a citizen must be free to vote or not, and without punishment if she chooses not to vote.
But what about this fear: If voting is a privilege granted by the powers-that-be, and if people do not take advantage of that privilege, won’t it be likely that the privilege will be taken away?
There are certainly anti-democratic forces at work that would like to end all voting once and for all. To call voting a privilege plays into their hands, and so it is important to see voting more as a right — an inalienable right. As such, it cannot (legitimately) be taken away or given away, for that matter. Whether anyone votes or not.
So I would say that militating for the right to vote (i.e., fighting for something already ours) is a worthy cause. We’d be out in the streets if the powers-that-be were to try to take away our right to vote (which, by the way, is — by definition here — impossible: our taking to the streets would be our “vote” in that case). Whether you then go ahead and vote, given the current system, is immaterial to that fight. The right is ours. Period.
There is an argument to be made about the efficacy of voting (see this post from 2008). We must consider how much voting becomes a substitute for democratic engagement. We must consider, too, how much of a role big money plays in elections.
There are plenty of good reasons not to vote.
What about the “lesser of two evils” argument? Candidate A may be horrible, but A is far less horrible than B. Is that a good (enough) reason to vote? Isn’t the lesser of two evils still evil? Can one be faulted for not wanting to do evil?
Well, perhaps one can. If our backs are to the wall and all our choices are bad, one cannot be faulted for choosing the least bad option, even though it is still bad. But what if our backs are not against the wall? What if there are options besides complicity with certain evils? Wouldn’t working — in whatever ways, great or small — against the broken system be at least as good (if not better) than surrendering to it? Is taking the time to write a blog post, for instance, giving a reasoned opinion on not voting worth the same as a vote in the current system? Could it even be worth more? What if we were deny the equivalence of “citizenship” and “voting”, to think that we, indeed, have responsibilities, but responsibilities as citizens and not just as voters? One might be a responsible citizen and still not vote.
To be clear, I am not arguing that you should not vote. I am arguing that if you do not vote you still have the right to voice your dissent and criticism of the government. I am arguing that you do not have responsibilities qua voter, but that you do have responsibilities qua citizen (and qua human being, for that matter). I am suggesting, too, that not voting is a form of vote, and that it can be (but, alas, is not necessarily) an act of civic responsibility.