To Not Vote

Each November, American citizens aged eighteen or older face decisions. We can choose between political candidates who are vying for leadership roles. Sometimes that’s a cut and dry choice because one candidate represents your ideology so clearly, or the other candidate is so repulsive; just as often, it may be a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. In addition to voting on people, there are often policies at stake—what will or will not be legalized; what people will or will not have to do. In recent years, depending on where you live, these issues may have included matters such as legalizing gay marriage, the use of recreational marijuana, or a requirement to label genetically modified foods.

And then there’s a more fundamental question: should I bother voting at all? Today, I’m writing support an unpopular opinion: maybe you shouldn’t.

Maybe it’s nothing new on a national scale, but over the past decade of my life I’ve observed a significant uptick in rallies to get people to their local polls as a matter of principle and as a matter of pride. There’s rhetoric about people dying for our vote to right. Suggestions that it’s un-American, or irresponsible not to cast a vote. And I don't entirely agree.

For one matter, a vote is someone’s personal business. We don’t allow people to see whom one another are voting for at most polling places. It’s considered poor manners to bring politics in mixed company. I would argue that the choice to vote is no less a personal matter--that my choice to or not to vote has little more to do with you than my choice to or not visit a dentist or get a cardiovascular workout. In not voting, I recognize that I am sacrificing my voice on that particular Election Day’s set of issues--and that I have little right to complain if I don’t like the outcomes for matters I chose to abstain from. Perhaps Rush put it best in the lyrics to their song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

But more to the core of the issue, why would someone not want to vote? There are poor reasons, such as apathy and laziness--truly not caring about the world around you, or being so slothful not to find your way to a polling place or to file an absentee ballot because it simply seems like too much effort. But there are more legitimate reasons, too.

If you’re ignorant, you shouldn’t vote. You might mistaken ignorance for laziness, but I do feel there are important distinctions. There have been times in my life—particularly when I just moved to a new place, and just started new professionalor academic responsibilities, and simply did not feel that I had the appropriate time and attention to fully educate myself as a citizen. This left me with choices. I could scramble to learn as much as I could about the issues and people at stake, with full knowledge I wouldn’t have time to learn enough information to feel fully comfortable with the issues at stake, much less to think critically and form my own, meaningful opinions on these topics. Or I could vote the party line and have faith that my general political leanings, and the people who subscribe to the same political party, won’t lead me astray.

But the fact is, if I’m not confident I fully understand an issue, much less that I have a concrete opinion on that issue, then it’s a disservice to myself and all of the people who do understand the issue for me to make an ignorant vote. I’m better off staying home.

If you’re not affected, it may not be appropriate to vote. This is a trickier point, because I’ll acknowledge there are plenty of times in which people can use their privilege to work toward more ethical or equitable treatment of those less fortunate. That said, there are also times in which voters stick their nose into business that does not concern them. Take college kids--a group that is often most aggressively encouraged to “do their civic duty” and vote. As a college freshman moving into a new community, likely in a college bubble in which your life is very different from the circumstances “the townies” have lived in and will continue to live in indefinitely, is it really your place to shape how their local government will proceed? Conversely, if you’re a college student who only returns to your hometown for winter break and a couple weeks of summer, how confident do you feel in casting that absentee ballot pertaining to issues and candidates that are going to have minimal impact on your life in the months ahead.

There are individual circumstances that can play out much differently from the oversimplified points I’ve outlined above, but I’d argue that these points do ring true for a startlingly high number of disaffected young Americans who arrogantly think they’re doing what’s best for ignorant townsfolk in a community they're not really a part of, rather than allowing true democracy to shape the people most affected by it.

If you don’t feel represented, you’re well within your rights to not vote. Make no mistake about it, American democracy is largely broken. I won’t go so far as to advocate for a complete and total reboot or overhaul, but campaign financing games, media tactics, and the strategery of major political parties have left us with a thoroughly corrupted version of what democracy, in its purest form, is intended to be. There are a number of people out there who take flack each election season for opting not to vote because their views are not represented in the choices available in an election, or because they sincerely feel that the system is too screwed up to accomplish anything of import, and that the act of not voting both sends a clearer message than voting for the least of all evil available. Some of these folks are quietly disillusioned. Some of them are waiting on the revolution.

I don’t count myself in the ranks of this last group, but nor can I disrespect their stance. They have made informed choices.

With all of this said, I should raise an important caveat to this post. Ideally, I do support civic engagement. In an ideal society, people would follow the political issues that most affect them--they would follow them consistently, learn about them objectively, think critically, and form opinions independent from what their families, political parties, and the media would have them believe. They would vote in the district and on the issues that they feel most strongly about and that most directly affect them. Or they would consciously choose not to vote, but still engage with issues and use other avenues of organization to work toward change. The US would be better for all of that.

But with all of that said, this Election Day, I urge you to do what you want, and to acknowledge the possibility that that can justifiably include not voting.