Guest Blogger

Not Voting? Why Not?

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 30, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: election campaigns, Greg Varnum, nonvoters, NYAC, undecided voter, voters, voting

Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

It's been an exciting two year buildup to the election that is now days away. It's been a season full of twists and surprises. However, the largest surprise of this election for me wasn't anything that happened on the campaign trail. A few months ago I learned my sister's boyfriend does not vote in elections. As I've tried to tolerate and even accept his lifestyle choice, I've spent some time reflecting on this segment of the population - which has always mystified me - the non-voter.

Shortly after the 2000 election I spoke with a number of people who voted differently than I did and had no apparent justification for doing so. I once felt this was the most sinful group of US citizens - the uninformed voter. At the time I felt that I'd rather have an uninformed voter become a non-voter. However, I have since come to appreciate that even these uniformed voters have room to grow. They often feel enough guilt about their status as an "uniformed voter" that they are willing to put at least some effort into changing. I respect that these people are at least putting an effort into their responsibilities as a citizen, not as much of an effort as I would like or feel would be truly helpful to the process, but it's a start. Whereas I once feared this group's existence would cancel out my vote - I now applaud that they bothered to show up at all.

There is of course the group of voters who simply disagree with me. This is the group most people claim to have a sense of disconnect with - voters on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as yourself. I will continue to try to educate and persuade these voters to move closer to where I stand on that ideological spectrum. I will continue to have a number of discussions and arguments with this group, but I have a lot of respect for their commitment to the election process and can certainly relate to their passion.

This brings me back to that mysterious non-voting segment of the population. I've heard a lot of arguments from these folks on why they've decided to skip out on this part of their obligations as a US Citizen. With a few exceptions of people who are unable to vote for legal or ageist reasons - which are out of their control - I have yet to hear a convincing or even respectable argument from a non-voter.

The one excuse that I have heard, which I'm incredibly sympathetic to, are folks who have been institutionally kept from voting. This has happened through some of the new voter ID acts, "cleaning" of voter lists done by states or through generations of oppression and disempowerment, which is not easily unlearned as a colleague pointed out. Having been privileged enough in my own life to have avoided all of these things, I have a lot of compassion for folks facing these barriers. However, I think a great response to these unethical behaviors is to show them that you're going to vote despite them. If you do happen to run into any barriers in voting, I encourage you to contact the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) or online at: www.866ourvote.org

Probably the most popular is that they don't feel informed enough to make a decision. Rather than explore the, as they perceive it, uninteresting world of politics - they'd rather avoid the whole thing. Some even fear that their uneducated participation may mess things up. So far I have yet to hear this from someone who failed to pass middle school, is seeking asylum in a cave or is somehow cut off completely from civilization. As such, this is a pretty pathetic excuse. To me, it's like saying "I was going to put gas in my car, but I wasn't sure which of the three types was best, so I just decided to skip the gas station altogether."

There is so information to help inform voters online (such as NYAC's Queer the Vote - www.queerthevote.org), on TV (although I personally think this is a poor source of information), in newspapers, in your mail, at libraries and many other places that you almost have to intentionally go out of your way to avoid it these days. Clearly access to this information is not the issue. I always have a hard time believing the whole "I don't have the time" argument as these people had the time to think out their arguments for not voting, and are taking the time to convey it to me, so right there is a window you could reclaim and utilize for this cause. I suspect if we took an hour by hour look at a person's day - we could find a couple of hours in the days left before the election to squeeze in some education on the people who would like to influence the future direction of your life. It may not be the most exciting time spent, but as an adult, sometimes you need to accept your responsibilities and pay the price of time.

Another popular argument is that an individual's vote makes no difference. If everyone believed that their vote made no difference than getting someone elected would only require themselves showing up with a ballot on Election Day. Clearly an individual's vote matters. If your self-confidence is so low that you even manage to decrease the value of your vote, I suggest seeking help to address some larger issues. As we saw with the 1960 and 2000 elections, an individual vote can have a large impact on the outcome of elections.

The last popular argument that I hear, and perhaps the most amusing to me, is that government isn't important enough in their lives. I completely understand how boring politics can be and I agree that some of the federal government's policies don't always hit close to home. However, just because something is boring, doesn't make it any less important in your life. My tax returns are pretty boring, but I bet if I avoided it every year I would be reminded by the IRS of just how important they are. When you consider that 70% of the government that effects your day-to-day life is actually local and state government - it's even easier to see the impact on the world around you. What is funny is that this argument usually includes a long list of other things they're more worried about - such as keeping their job or being able to pay their mortgage - that the government has a lot of influence over.

With the election days away, I urge you, please, do not become a member of the hard to comprehend non-voter population. It is one of your most important and defended duties as a citizen. Personally, I would support individuals having to pay higher taxes for neglecting this civic obligation (please note that NYAC has not taken a position on this issue). To keep family peace, I'm going to avoid treating my sister's boyfriend like the sort of nomad I now see him as in my head. However, anyone else who opts out of their obligations this November should be prepared to defend their mistake until they have a chance to correct it two years from now.

NYAC is the national social justice organization working with LGBTQ young people to strengthen the role of young people in the LGBTQ rights movement. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, NYAC's full-time professional staff supports local, state and national organizations working to engage LGBTQ youth. For more information about our work, please visit www.nyacyouth.org.


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Greg, when many people rightly feel that their vote won't make a difference, I think the argument (whether it gets articulated or not) is much more complex than the one you've presented. Both of the major parties are controlled by corporate interests. Because of the electoral system, voting third party really isn't an option in the national elections. So if you don't agree with the Republicans' or Democrats' platforms, your vote really doesn't make a difference in the national election.

The concept of voting as a right or voting as an obligation presupposes that people view themselves as "citizens" of a "nation state" and that they want to participate in and legitimize that institution. Many people oppose this concept, whether they are Marxists, anarchists, or somewhere on the far right of the political spectrum. Refusal to participate is not the same as apathy. Speaking from an anarchist point of view, I think you would be very surprised to find that most anarchists are self-educated, that they've thought about their political points of view, that the have a pretty nuanced justification for not voting, and that they're very engaged in their communities in the form of direct action to feed the homeless, police the cops, etc. Anarchists aren't just a bunch of punk teenagers who light garbage cans on fire just for the hell of it. They're engaged community activists, not apathetic losers who would rather play video games on election day than stand in a 4 hour line to cast a ballot.

That being said, there are some anarchists (like myself) who do feel that voting in local elections can have an impact. When Prop 200 (the facist anti-immigrant bill in AZ that requires proof of citizenship to receive any "social services," whether it be a library card or an emergency response to a 911 call) was on the ballot in AZ in 2004, the anarchist community was among the first to organize. We protested, door knocked, held public debates, phone banked, and literally worked our asses off to make sure that this didn't pass. So please don't paint people like us with a singular brush and claim that we just don't care.

The last point I want to make about "citizenship" and the "nation state" is this: the past two elections in this country have been rigged, and anyone who refuses to believe all the evidence to the contrary is just burying their heads in the sand. You can use all of the neo-liberal appeals you want to try to convince people that they can make a difference, all it takes is one vote, blah, blah, blah . . . but when our very recent history has shown that the system is so corrupt that you can steal an election in broad daylight with the whole world watching without any fear of a reprisal, I think it's pretty easy to understand why the average "citizen" has given up on "America." Joe the Plumber could very easily take an entire day off of work and stand in line for 7 hours just to see another rigged election. What will you tell him then, Greg? Because I think you need to pre-empt that scenario in order to convince anyone to get to the polls.

I'd tell that person that you can't fix the problem if you refuse to participate. Nothing has ever been accomplished by people who stand around with their arms folded across their chests bitching about how wrong everything is, but never doing anything about it.

I realize your point about local activities like feeding homeless, etc. That's great for churches, civic groups or whatever - but that's not the issue here. It's a red herring. The issue is voting and participating in a democracy not feeding the homeless. By not voting, the non-participant is - in effect - tacitly condoning the very problems they insist need to be changed.

I'd tell him that since he voted he at least has the moral authority to complain about it. If he stays home, he gets the democracy he's bargained for.

As far as the anarchists'(and others)nuanced views are concerned, if they don't vote their views don't matter. If people don't vote because they aren't represented, they'll never be represented.

If people don't like the candidates at the top of the ticket, they should start electing members of new parties at the bottom of the ticket. Too many people fail to support strong local parties, then cry because the national parties are not to their liking. Democracy isn't a spectator sport.

Marja Erwin | October 30, 2008 8:12 PM

I can't see any place for a compromise strategy. You are trying to work within the system to fix it; nonvoting activists are trying to work outside the system to replace it.

As an anarchist and pacifist, I think the state/violence is inherently unjust. No mere reform can correct that. It's important to build alternatives and, at the same time, to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the state. Voting tends to do the opposite.

And by not taking part you are enabling the injustice you claim to abhor. At least the Ralph Nader voters who arguably gave us GW the first time endeavored to make things better by standing up and being counted.

We know how many people voted for Ralph Nader. How many people didn't vote because they were anarchists? How many didn't vote cause they were hung over? There is no way to tell. How effective is that?

I don't think that most people who stay home think about the election like this. We make voting hard so that people just give up on it, when we should be making it more accessible.

Although no one cared when the election was stolen in 2000 and the government and media just told us to get over it. It should still piss people off.

Well Alex, I for one am still pissed off about it and one of the people who tried back then to do something about it is running for President this time. Cynthia McKinney is a true patriot and someone I can vote for and actually feel good about it. Didn't know about the Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente ticket? That's because the media in this country is corporate controlled and makes damn sure you never hear about third parties unless forced to and then it's just a big joke.

Me?, I'd rather vote FOR someone than have to pick the lesser of two evils. A vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil.