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.