“In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home.” – David Foster Wallace
On November 8, we are called to exercise one of our basic rights of citizenship and cast our ballots for the candidates – at the national and local levels – we believe will best serve to lead us. Nationwide, many voters are scratching their heads at how we came to this point with these two major candidates: a Republican outsider with no experience in office whose controversial actions have led leaders in his own party to say they won’t vote for him; and a Democratic insider whose past scandals continue to haunt her campaign. A Gallup poll in mid-July showed that one in four Americans disliked both candidates. Whatever the outcome on November 8, a significant portion of us will be unhappy with the result – who will likely feel the system is rigged, the winner illegitimate.
Some people argue it’s not even worth making the effort to vote, either because they don’t like the candidates or they don’t trust government (despite which party holds the reins). They decide to “sit this one out.” Unfortunately, it’s common to hear “One vote doesn’t matter in a [red or blue] state.” But the truth is, it matters immensely whether or not you or I vote. You might have a thousand reasons to justify not participating in the electoral process next Tuesday. You might even tell yourself that your vote doesn’t matter, that neither candidate speaks the truth or speaks to the issues that matter to you. You might feel that the system is corrupt, that the Illuminati runs the country anyway, so why bother?
With that thought process, it’s easy to become cynical and indifferent to the process – and many feel exactly that. But there is something larger at stake when we choose whether to vote or not vote.
Voting is both a right and a responsibility as a citizen. Our democracy is founded upon the principle of free and fair elections, where every eligible citizen casts a vote. People have died for our right to vote, and many countries are presently fighting for this same right. It is our responsibility to protect the process itself, and that does not happen by withdrawing our participation. As messy as it may be, our participation in the process is required. Not to mention, the right to complain comes with an obligation to participate.
Who votes counts. Elected officials know who votes. If community turnout is low, elected officials will pay less attention, make fewer appearances, and make fewer appeals to your community. Who votes has a powerful impact on public policy or government. Voters have policy and political concerns that will not be heard (or considered) if they don’t vote. Let’s consider the following scenarios:
A. I am a politician from a party and my party wins by a 30% or greater margin. I review the poll results and see that there are roughly 40% non-voters of the population in my state. I can conclude that these 40% don’t care about politics, since they didn’t see the need to vote. I determine that I don’t need to expect any uproar or unrest from them if I pass a law. Of the 60% that voted, 70% voted for me and 30% for other parties. This means that I can pass laws as I like because:
- There are 40% non-voters who don’t care about politics and are not a threat for me or other parties.
- From the 60% who voted, 70% were for me – not a close race.
- I do not need to fear any backlash if I pass a law that aligns with my political ideology; the other parties are too weak to hinder my decisions.
B. I am a politician from a party and my party wins by a narrow margin, with 52% of votes, while 48% voted for other parties. Although I won, the close results show a clear uncertainty among the people in my state. In this case, I must pass laws that favor me and them because:
- The margin could close unfavorably and I could lose the next election.
- I have not “clearly” won and must consider the opinions of others.
If legislators do not hear from you, they do not know what you care about. On a local scale, if you’re not registered to vote, you cannot sit on a jury. You can’t choose your mayor, your city council, or your district attorney. You can’t decide which measures will help your family and community, and which will put them at risk.
The feeling of disappointment and discouragement is a universal experience that everyone has in common. We have had our hearts broken, our hopes punctured, our dreams dashed. At some point, we can count on feeling misunderstood, mistreated, or judged unfairly. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what happens to us; it’s what we do with what happens to us that counts. Reacting to loss and disappointment by throwing your hands up and walking away reflects cynicism and indifference. We’ve all gotten the “good sportsmanship” chat in elementary school gym class – nobody likes a sore loser.
You might be right in your assumption that not voting is a way to reflect your disdain for the process or the candidates. But before you decide your vote doesn’t matter in this election, take a moment to consider these questions: Where in your life have you left the playing field because you didn’t like or agree with the way the game was being played? What relationships have stopped working due, in part, to your decision not to fully participate?
Although many people have described this year’s election as choosing between the lesser of two evils, there are still many reasons to get out and cast your vote (aside from the cool sticker). Maybe our options are discouraging, but in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Ultimately, you have a choice about whether or not to exercise your right to vote. Either way, it matters. You have a say.
By: Lauren Dods
Current UMUC Graduate Student