Why I Did Not Vote

I did not vote on Tuesday. I willfully did not vote. I specifically, purposefully, intentionally did not vote. I want to explain, but what follows should not be taken to be an argument against voting per se nor is it meant to be a criticism of your decision to vote (if in fact you did vote).

First things first, however. I have no intentions of being moved by those patriotic scolds out there who are about to chastise my not voting, nor will I accept their proposed punishment that I keep silent, that I have no right to complain about the government. That is blatant nonsense. I was endowed by my Creator with a right to express my views, an inalienable right, an irrevocable, unconditional right, accorded me by the very fact that I’m a human being. To quote the philosopher M.C. Hammer: “U can’t touch this!” I’ll not be silent (and neither should you be).

I have asserted elsewhere that my not voting does not nullify my right to vote. A right to vote is not an obligation to vote. My right to vote is not contingent upon my actually voting. It is not “use it or lose it.”

We know that some people had to fight very hard for the right to vote — women, for instance, and people of color even today in the face of the sham voter id. rules. It was a great and noble fight, to be sure. But consider that the right had to be fought for. What does that mean? It means that there was some person or persons who had the power to deny that right to the disenfranchised. But what does that tell us? That the “right” to vote is really — in actuality, not in theory — viewed as a privilege. People worry, then, that their privilege could be taken away. That is part of the reason so many people get evangelical about voting: they consider it a “use it or lose it” privilege.

But it is not and ought not to be viewed as a privilege granted by somebody to others. It should be considered a simple offshoot of the right to freedom of speech. Voters and non-voters alike have, in my view, an inalienable right to have a say in the governance of their lives, and no one has the right to view voting as a privilege that could possibly be revoked.

I admit to anarchist tendencies, and anarchists tend to be critical of voting. But one can be a principled anarchist (and that is not an oxymoron) and still vote — in certain circumstances. While the midterm elections were going on, my neighbors were out campaigning. Not for a gubernatorial candidate but rather for their positions on two referendum questions pertaining to our neighborhood alone: whether we should allow ourselves to have motorcycles and whether we should allow ourselves to install invisible fences for our dogs. My neighbors have been going door-to-door, circulating arguments, and so on. Residents are taking two weeks to hold the vote (ballots being accepted at any time during that period). I am certainly going to vote on these two issues. Notice that I said this issues concern our “allowing ourselves.” We are not supplicants to somebody else in those matters. We deliberatively and collectively are determining for ourselves how it is best for us to be. Of course, not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, but given that reasonable people can disagree, this kind of deliberative democracy, though imperfect, is about the best we can do. I’m all for it. It is not that anarchists must be opposed to order or organization; rather, the argument is about the forms of that organization.

The voting that was going on down the street at the polling place is much different. I have no fear of contradiction when I assert that most of the voters had no idea of the actual policy positions of the candidates (and that’s not entirely the fault of the voters, by the way). Even the candidates for local office are simply names on yard signs to most voters. People, I’m sure, tended to vote their party affiliation without any real understanding of what it means to be “Democrat” or “Republican” at the local level, and I expect they don’t have a very clear idea of the actual (and not simply the rhetorical) difference between the parties at the national level.

In addition, I am confident that most of the voters exhausted the entirety of their civic engagement in those few moments in the voting booth. They equate democracy with voting. They equate voting with being a patriot. They equate voting with civic responsibility. And when they’ve pulled the lever, they are done with all that.

Now these are the scolds who are very quick to criticize anyone who chooses not to vote in a particular election. I’ve spent more time on just this present set of reflections (one of many) than most people did “performing their civic duty” on election day. And it is a fair question whether this humble essay will have more or less (positive) effect on the world than one voter’s vote. For instance, the incumbent governor of Pennsylvania effectively lost his chance at reelection two years ago. The result was a foregone conclusion, a done deal. The governor-elect barely had to break a sweat. He even declined to dole out the customary “street money” ($340,000 in this case) for greasing the wheels on election day. Why? He claimed noble reasons (“I don’t want to pay people to vote for me”), but in reality he simply did not need to spend the money. We all knew he won before the polls even opened.

You might say that if everyone had my attitude, the outcome might have been different. But not everyone has my attitude, do they? Not everyone is particularly interested in participatory democracy. They’re interested in voting. So long as they are, the outcomes in races like the one in Pennsylvania are eminently predictable.

I am for the most part unimpressed by the “lesser of two evils” argument for voting…and especially for voting for one of the candidates from the Big Two parties. “Don’t you see, if you don’t vote (or if you vote for a third-party candidate), you’ll be helping Evil Candidate X win the election. Therefore you must vote for Slightly-Less-Evil Candidate Y who represents the Slightly-Less-Evil Other of the Big Two Parties. It is the lesser of two evils.” But why do evil at all? Why not work, even if it is your own humble little way (kind of like your vote), to promote an alternative to the evils of the two party system?

Now I don’t want to be partisan in this post, but have you seen some of the people you voters have elected? I for one am not going to be lectured to about political wisdom by people who voted for…no…I will just have to  resist naming the stupid and/or corrupt people you voters put in office. You know full well — don’t you? — who they are. And if you do, shame on you for electing them. And if you don’t, well, you’ve got nothing to say to me. I mean, one state returned to office a person whose entire platform is dedicated to being completely obstructionist. In other words, this person’s mission is to not to govern at all — not in the “that government governs best which governs least” sense, but in the sense that this person will work hard simply to thwart whatever the other side would like to do…even if it really were to contribute to the common good. Should I be complicit with that?

Nationwide, $4 billion was spent on this election. Four billion dollars! Our public schools are run down, our infrastructure is crumbling, our natural world is being devastated, and you voters — yes! you must take responsibility — wasted $4 billion on these elections. Money well-spent, would you say?

I am a registered independent voter. I am not permitted to vote in primary elections because I do not belong to a political party. In many districts, office holders are selected in the primaries — the disparity in party affiliation making the general election moot. In fact, I think I ought not to be allowed to vote in a primary election. Granted that we’re going to continue to have these kinds of elections, I think the parties themselves should select their candidates. However, I do not think I ought to have to pay for these elections. Let the parties fund their own selection process for their candidates. Why should I have to pay for the workings of a party with which I have little common interest?

Or here is an alternative: Public financing alone for this step in the process. All parties and their potential candidates for the general election, not just the Big Two, have equal access to the polls and to a reasonable array of public media in order to present their respective cases. You could do all this for a lot less than $4B. Worried that this would stop all the tv commercials and robo-calls to your house (hahahaha…of course aren’t…it’d be a blessing!) and that this would be an infringement of freedom of speech? Don’t worry. You’ll get over it. The public media will give you plenty of opportunity to hear all sides on all issues — in fact, you’ll have way more information than you get with all the attack ads you have to endure now.

There are lots of other election reforms that we could discuss, all of which would serve to strengthen democracy (i.e., that would start do do away with this fake democracy the patriotic scolds perpetually mistake for the real thing with a kind of religious fervor). But let’s leave that for another day.

Let me reiterate: I am not arguing against all voting. I am not saying I will never vote, no matter what. I am not telling you that you should not vote. I am simply pointing out that not voting is not the moral failure that some of you voters claim it is. Unlike you, I am not a Manichean about politics. I don’t think there is One Party of Light and One Party of Darkness. I think — only because it is true — that there are lots of political parties, but that we don’t get to hear much about them because of all you Manicheans. I am reminding you that voting is not all there is to democracy, and it is perfectly possible (I know, because it happens to be actual) that you can hold elections and still not have a genuine democracy. I recognize that there are non-voters who don’t vote out of apathy (but is the apathy entirely their fault?) or from laziness. But there is also a certain laziness in perhaps the majority of voters, who, thoroughly uninformed, sheepishly head to the polls yammering in their Manichean way about how the sky will fall if Evil Party/Candidate X wins the race. Some even declare, in that event, that they’ll leave for Canada. But, alas, they never do.

Truthfully, I don’t want them to. What I want is an increase in democratic participation. As things stand, I don’t think that is accurately measured by voter turnout.




  1. #1 by Vance Ricks (@ricksva) on November 16, 2014 - 9:02 am

    As I understand your thoughtful post, you’re not claiming that you do not vote, but instead that you did not vote. In other words — you’re not saying you never vote, and your example of the neighborhood initiative shows that. You’re arguing that there are at least some occasions where it’s at least acceptable to not vote. That seems right to me, and I think your argument is strong. It leaves me with a couple of questions.

    First — I agree that some people act as though voting is the sole civic responsibility that they have. They don’t attend city council meetings; they don’t advocate publicly for concerted neighborhood action to solve neighborhood problems; they don’t organize petition drives; etc. That means that if they don’t vote, then for practical purposes, they aren’t engaged in the civic life of their community/ies at all (let’s say). Do you think that even those people lack an obligation to vote, since they’re not doing anything else (civically speaking)?

    Second — As a black American, I feel a responsibility to vote because of all my forebears who were (and in some ways continue to be) so systematically, and frequently violently, explicitly denied the exercise of that right. In other words: granting all that you say about the corruption of The System, I still experience voting as an obligation because it’s a way of expressing gratitude to, and solidarity with, a group of oppressed people, by publicly exercising a right that very few of them were able to exercise.
    Maybe you’ll say, “But you’re drawing the wrong lesson. The reason that eventually, the various Voting Rights Acts were passed, so that you could exercise that right, is the ongoing political and civic engagement and activism that a coalition of people of all backgrounds undertook. So, your gratitude and solidarity obligate you to be equally civically engaged and active — but not necessarily to vote!” Would you say that?

    I really enjoy reading your blog, by the way. Thanks for writing so well.

    • #2 by eweislogel on November 16, 2014 - 12:44 pm

      Dear Vance,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful – and kind – response. I am grateful that you took the time to read my thoughts on voting, and I’d like to try to say a few things in response to your comments and questions.

      First, though, if I may, I’d like to make one important parenthetical remark. I really ought to post a disclaimer at the top of all my entries that these are the thoughts of a human being trying to work things out, trying to think things through. All of it ought to be taken as provisional. That is not to say that I haven’t, to the best of my limited abilities, come to some conclusions to the questions that confront me. When I am not just fooling around (which I sometimes do on this blog), *I am not just fooling around*: I want to know the answers to the questions I pose. The question of voting is no exception. But I would never say that my views are the absolute last word on the subject. I don’t *think* I’m wrong (so far…), but I *might* be wrong. And if I happen to be wrong, I’d welcome correction.

      Maybe we could put it this way. Some people’s main purpose in writing is to correct the errors of others. Although that is a purpose of my writing, it is not the *main* purpose. The main purpose of my writing is *to try to find out what I think*. The main purpose of my *publishing* my writing is to afford myself the chance of being corrected if *I* am in error.

      Although you have not directly pointed out a mistake in my thinking, your considered remarks and questions serve to help me to think things through, and I am grateful.

      Regarding voting, you have read me correctly. I did not vote in the midterm elections, and I did not vote on purpose. But I do usually vote in elections, midterm or otherwise. First, it was a kind of experiment. I simply wondered whether the sky would fall if I did not vote. I believe that it did not fall. Second, I have real questions about the meaning and efficacy of voting in our political situation, and every once in a while I like to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. If voting (as it stands) serves to perpetuate a dysfunctional and, indeed, unjust system, then I should be careful about enabling it.

      I say “careful,” because things – as you well recognize – are complicated. I complained of being put in the situation of having to choose between the lesser of two evils, but are we ever *not* in that situation in political life? My not voting, itself, could be seen as a choice (to my mind) of the lesser of two evils. In fact, I think that is a fair characterization of my decision – whether I like it or not. It was the best I could do at the time, but hardly the perfect political act.

      Your first question is, if I may paraphrase, whether if a person is *obligated* to be civically involved *and* if a person engages in no *other* civic activities, ought one at least to vote (as one’s sole civic act)? “I need to be civically engaged, at least in some way. I voted. Check. At least I did that much.” I see what you are suggesting, but I wonder if that citizen or indeed any of us are well served by voting with this attitude. Far be it from me to claim to know the motives and the preparation for voting that people have. I do wonder, though, how in the world most citizens can claim to know what candidates stand for, what their positions are, what the effects of implementing those policies would be. I wonder whether the candidates, themselves, even have a clear view of policy. How much of what candidates and office holders say and do are for particular constituencies and special interests? And how much of any of that is consistent with and how much is contradictory to stated political philosophies?

      So maybe you have a point that doing *something* is better than doing nothing at all. But is voting really the best default political act?

      Your second set of questions and comments are very important. First, let me state again that I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of not only the *right* to vote but the facility and access to voting for all citizens (and maybe even all competent and affected persons living here). If there were a vote on the right to vote, I would vote for it. If there were a fight over the right to vote, I would fight for it. For me, this is non-negotiable. A vote cast simply to honor the fight for the right to vote – for which some gave their all – is an honorable act. We are all in the debt of those who fought that fight, and if I became convinced the the only or the best way to honor those who defended our right to vote was to vote, I certainly would vote every time. You certainly give me pause by bringing this to mind.

      I would say that I hope it is clear that I am not be cavalier in not voting. Not voting is a serious business, at least for me. In fact, I think – as I have said – that people can be just as unserious in voting as some non-voters are in not voting. In taking the time and effort to consider what it means to be a citizen, what it means to vote, what civic participation really requires, and so forth, I think I am being civically engaged. The argument, then, is only over whether my way of being engaged is better somehow than voting (and, of course, they are not mutually exclusive).

      In the end, I am arguing something like this: if you are not going to vote, ask yourself what you *are* going to do for the commonweal. If you find voting to be further entrenching an unjust system, then ask yourself why you would vote anyway. And we can all ask ourselves how we can best honor those who were fighting not just for voting, not just for voting as an end in itself, but for justice and the common good. We can ask ourselves whether the situation is such that simply voting is the *best* way to honor those to whom we owe so much.

      Again, Vance, thanks for your comments and questions. I value them. If you blog or otherwise share your thoughts on politics, let me know where I can find them. I am sure to read them and just as sure that I’ll learn something.

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