The Value of Voting?

Know Your Voting Rights in Kansas | ACLU of Kansas

[Update:  In light of political developments since this article was written, a personal addendum to it has been published.]

In America (and, presumably, most other democracies), the act of voting is valued as both a right and a duty.  We respect and uphold this great privilege we currently enjoy, granted to us through the efforts and sacrifices of past generations.  The right to vote is a virtue we all cherish, as it binds us together in a greater community.  Yet, despite all of this, the fact still remains that roughly half of us in America (who are eligible) don’t vote.  Implying that, while nearly all of us give lip-service to the importance of voting, a good 50% don’t actually bother to do it.  Here, it is not uncommon for the politically active to dismiss their inactive counterparts as bullheaded, affirming how, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”  However fine a byword this might be to rally the voting masses, it does little to address the issue at hand; nearly everybody values voting (or at least claims to), but only half of us see the endeavor as worthwhile.

Moreover, I find it relatively shocking how few dare to engage this issue through any measured scrutiny.  How often is the question raised about whether or not voting is truly a viable virtue?  Almost never.  It is assumed to be self-evidently true, and to question it as such would be insulting to out national consciousness.  But haven’t half of us already decided that voting is not worth our efforts?  So, why bother being offended by a matter that is removed from an equal number of people’s concerns?

Additionally, is it really true that we cannot complain about circumstances we choose not to take an active part in?  Does this apply to other situations besides voting?  Is it worth for a Democrat to vote in the presidential election in a predominately Republican state?  Is it worth for a Republican to vote in the presidential election in a predominately Democratic state?  If you are a liberal in a conservative town/city, how much influence will your vote have on the candidates who will be your representatives?  In the same gesture, if you are a conservative in a liberal town/city, what influence will your vote have on the candidates who will be your representatives?  Does this mean that the value of voting is arbitrarily determined by the place you reside, and the type of election being held?  And why are these questions brushed off as trivial by those who want to increase voter participation?

A commonly endorsed, egalitarian-sounding, feel-good-sorta sentiment that people throw around to respond to the above concerns is to explain, “Well, it’s not important who you vote for, just that you do vote.”  But doesn’t this undermine the whole point of the process?  If this nonchalant take on the matter is to be taken seriously, then elections are nothing more but a means to get the public to participate in a common gathering every 2 to 4 years.  Such a sentiment holds the implication that the results are meaningless, because what’s really important is that you just take part, with no weight given to the consequences.  How is that an argument in favor of a valuable duty responsible citizens should strive to maintain?  If you care about the voting process, it should matter to you who people are voting for, otherwise we might as well just randomly pick a name out of a hat prior to casting our ballots.

Let me clarify that I am not trying to talk anybody out of voting in the next election.  Far from it, I want those who care about the voting process to reflect and seriously consider the reasons for their position beyond the foolproof logic of cliche bumper-sticker slogans.  And for the other half of the citizenry, who honestly don’t see much value in voting, to openly admit it to themselves and not feel as though they need to hold something as virtuous simply because it’s expected by cultural mores.

If the values we hold matter, then we shouldn’t fear defending them.  No matter how basic we may think them to be.

Is Voting a Civil Duty?

Close Elections: Why Every Vote Matters : NPR

[Update:  In light of political developments since this article was written, a personal addendum to it has been published.]

Yesterday, I was faced once more with the most baffling bumper-sticker argument for the value of voting imaginable: “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just that you vote.”  It’s baffling to me, because as it stand, this may very well be the best argument to convince a person not to vote.  Think about it, if it doesn’t matter which candidate you vote for, it is a blunt admission that the whole practice is trivial.  If it doesn’t matter who I vote for, then why on earth should it matter if I vote, since the whole point of the voting process is to make an informed decision on who is to represent me at the political level.  If it doesn’t matter to you, which candidate is elected to office, why do you care so much whether or not people are voting to begin with?  Obviously, if you’re politically active you will favor one candidate over the other, because if you don’t, you might as well not take part in the process.  And, if the individual uttering the above statement is serious in her/his nonpartisan stance about the election results, then there is no reason for her/him to insist that the process has any value either.

Now, it is often maintained that voting is a civil duty.  By definition, a duty is a moral obligation imposed on a person (either by oneself, or an external factor like community/society/family, etc.), and civil duties are particular obligations that citizens have to their state/government.  For instance, following the laws of the land is a civil duty; paying one’s taxes; serving jury duty when summoned; also, in some countries, mandatory military service is a civil duty.  But what about voting?  I can see how one can try to make the argument that voting is a civil duty, since the outcome of an election can have a great affect on the policies that one’s government might implement, therefore we are encouraged to select the candidate we reason will represent our interests best.  However, the individual who makes the statement, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just that you vote,” forfeits her/his right to employ that kind of reasoning, since to them the value of voting is a symbolic gesture, not an act that entails important consequences.

Another issue that needs to be addressed here is that whenever individuals discuss their ideas on why voting is an important part, that we must participate in, all too often their voices become reduced to little more than an emotive squeal against those who don’t vote.  Which almost always leads to either baseless tautologies (“voting is good, because it is good to vote”), or the laziest poison known to critical thought, a careless retreat to absolutes (“It is always good to vote, and it is always bad not to vote”).

I can personally imagine many good reason why concerned citizens should consider showing up on election day, but all of them are provisional.  And all of them are situation specific.  If you are a liberal in a predominately conservative state, then there is no practical reason for you to take part in the national election.  If you are a conservative in a liberal state, then there is no practical reason for you to take part in the national election.  (Local elections, however, are still a viable option.)  If you are truly apolitical, and honestly don’t care about the election results, then there is no practical reason for you to vote.  If you are uninformed about political issues, your ignorance will probably prove to have dire consequence, and your decision to abstain from voting could end up benefiting society more than your participation.   The simple fact is that roughly half of the people in America don’t vote (and my guess is that the numbers are similar in many other Western countries, but I can’t be sure), so one cannot simply state that voting is self-evidently right, or even a duty, one has to backup the claim with decent arguments.  Bumper-sticker slogans, like the one discussed in this post, are not decent arguments.

Electoral Amnesia

Harper's Been in So Long We Suffer Political Amnesia | The Tyee

Politically Active Citizen A:  “You know, I’m sick and tired of all these politicians just lying to us to get elected.  And then when they get into office they completely ignore the campaign promises they made.  The whole political establishment seems to be set up against the interest of the common citizen.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “Totally, no matter where you stand on politics, we can all agree that the politicians we have in charge now are awful at serving the interests of the people.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “I agree.  Something must be done to bring about true reform in the political system, to let these politicians know we don’t approve of what they’re doing to our country.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “The problem is that people aren’t doing their part as responsible citizens.  Last election cycle I led a petition that registered millions of new voters to take part in the political process.  I figured that the real problem was apathy on the part of the citizens, and if more people go out to vote political corruption would be eliminated or lessened…somehow.  So we all voted in record numbers, but it didn’t really bring about any vital reform in the government.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “That’s very discouraging.  Maybe this year will be different.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “It will be, as long as even more people vote.  The only way to defeat a corrupt government is for people to fervently partake in the very process that continuous to validate its existence.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “I’ll start an online petition through Facebook immediately.  I just need a catchy name and logo–maybe a chant or two–this will show them we’re serious.”

My Rendered Counsel 

I have two basic sets of questions to the politically active:

1.  If all these politicians are indifferent about passing legislation to serve the interests of all of you who are already active in voicing your grievances with the government (the people whose political participation they depend on for their continued employment), how exactly will adding more voters (with varying degrees of understanding of political issues) into the mix help reform the situation?  What’s to guarantee that the addition of more average citizens will not be equally ignored in a political process where the size of a contributor’s financial donations ensure greater attention from prospective policymakers?  Also, within a larger group of people, the emergence of dissenting opinions is almost always a given.  So, how will you prevent people from being swayed to vote against their own interest (i.e. your interest) by these sneaky politicians?  Moreover, how do you know you aren’t one of those people yourself?

2.  As hinted in number 1, in a democratic system, the political establishment is sanctioned by citizen participation (in theory).  If people are voting (and, yes, the electors in the electoral college count as legitimate representatives of the people under current law), and the candidate with the most votes wins, then the political order is validated by virtue of the popularly agreed upon system.  So, if you agree with this fundamental aspect of the system, and you have hope in the positive efficacy of this system–and going by the fact that you actively partake in the process that sustains the system (i.e. voting), and encourage others to do so as well–in what way have you not, at least passively, consented to the workings of the current political establishment?  To put it more cryptically, if you disapprove of the game, why are you still playing along with the rules?

My honest goal here is not to discourage people from voting.  (What sort of silly goal would that be?)  My intent is to let those of you who have a tendency to get overly enthusiastic about your political participation understand that the reasons your non-active cohabitants in this country choose to abstain from the election process altogether are, at times, a bit deeper than the convenient apathy/ignorance explanation some of you are eager to attribute to them.  And if you truly want to persuade them to see (what you believe to be) the error of their ways, you might want to avoid sounding preachy about your own convictions.  Because to the unconverted, any preacher’s words will be about as convincing to listen to as static noise.  Just some food for thought, for the next time some political activist wants to put his or her self-righteous flyer in my hands without warning.