Why I Didn’t Vote

Posted on November 7, 2012


The election is over.  The incumbent has won.  And I did not vote.

Why is this an issue?

Seriously, why is it so important that every single person in this country votes?

I’m pausing after each question because I want you to come up with an answer.  Assume that someone close to you – a friend, sibling, child, colleague, etc. – is thinking about not voting in the next election.  This person comes to you with a question: what differences does it make if I don’t vote?  How would you respond?

I’m willing to bet that your answer will be some variation of the following:

  1. It’s your civic duty.
  2. It’s a privilege.
  3. If you don’t vote, don’t complain.
  4. If you want change, vote.
  5. That’s how a democracy works.
  6. If everyone thought like you did…

All right, let’s see where I can go with this…

1) It’s your civic duty.  Well, no, it isn’t.  There is no law that requires a citizen to participate in an election.  The Constitution doesn’t say it either.  You’ll find the origin of this concept (at least in America) in the words of a few of the founding fathers.  Most notably, the idea is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who charges American citizens with staying informed about political issues so that they may vote their conscience at the polls.  He believed that anything less would lead to the fall of our way of government.

Now I’m not one to just toss Jefferson to the curb because I disagree with him, but he isn’t exactly the Son of God, so I can’t help but feel that this position is being held to the same standard as Biblical verses.  The man was not a saint; he wrote many inspiring and truthful things, but that doesn’t mean that we have to idolize his opinion.  I feel that there may be situations when someone does not meet the criteria laid out in this concept.  What then?  Should an uninformed voter cast a ballot regardless?  What if he’s voting for the wrong person?  I mean, like, objectively wrong; Hitler wrong; that sort of thing.  Should that person still vote?  If an individual recognizes that he is not an informed voter, or that he really doesn’t care about the issue up for discussion, or if he doesn’t care for his choices on the ballot, then there’s nothing stopping him from not participating.  And there’s nothing wrong with this.

2) It’s a privilege.  Yes it is.  And it’s one that we, as Americans, should be thankful for.  The same applies to the freedom of expression.  Or the freedom to practice your religion.  Or to own firearms.  Are these requirements?  You have the right to say what you want in America; you have the right to openly practice your beliefs; you have the right to own a gun.  What happens if you don’t do any of these things?  Nothing.  No one badgers the silent American, the one who works her job and goes home to her family at night.  No one cares if you’re a Christian or a Muslim or an Atheist.  (Well, people do care, but our culture has reached the point where we no longer lynch people over such differences.)  The same applies to personal firearms.  So why is it such a big deal when a citizen decides to pass on her right to vote?

3) If you don’t vote, don’t complain.  All right, this is one that really irks me, so I’ll try to keep this civil.  The bottom line is this: Americans have the right to free speech.  We can say what we want in most any venue.  Sure, there are limitations – most networks control the content of their shows because they don’t want to offend their audience and schools limit this right for students because they have to maintain a peaceful, safe environment for everyone – but for the most part, our right to speech does not come with conditions.  So if I don’t vote, it has no impact on my Constitutional right to complain about the state of government; or the economy; or our public education system; or any other subject I feel like babbling about.

For some people, though, this concept – don’t vote? don’t complain – is more about their desire to not hear from people like me.  I think they’re saying, “Hey, you can abstain if you want, but I’m going to ignore anything you say because I don’t value your opinion anymore.”  That’s fine.  That’s their choice.  I think it’s an ignorant, childish choice, but I’m not one to say they can’t do ignorant, childish things if they want to (hell, people do it every four years).  But what I think they’re saying is different from what they actually say.  The statement, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain,” is not an opinion; it’s not a personal preference.  It’s an imperative.  It’s a command.  And on the basis that it is in direct conflict with a Constitutional right, I reject it.

4) If you want change, vote.  You know, this is just plain silly.  This statement is also an imperative – vote or else there’s no way to force change! – but it assumes there are no other options.  I could effect change by affecting how other people think; that would change how they voted.  I could effect change by going into the world and participating in a charitable organization.  Hell, I could give money to a charity and that would contribute to change in the world.  I could become a political activist; I could become a politician; I could start a business and use my influence to affect how people think and act; or I could write.  If I want change, there are many options available to me.  I’m not limited to just voting.

5) That’s how a democracy works.  First, our nation is a representative democracy; it’s a republic.  This is a crucial concept where voting is concerned.  In a democracy, every vote counts.  Every.  Single.  Vote.  It’s also a form of government where the people who vote will vote on virtually every issue, so it’s not very practical.  I know, I know, you’re doing a face palm right now and shaking your head.  You’re thinking, “Geez, does he not get it? Of course we know the difference! America has always been a republic, that’s how we get things done, especially since it’s so big now.”  Except here’s the thing: my vote doesn’t always count.  Wisconsin (my home state) has 10 electoral votes.  In order for a candidate to win those votes, he/she has to win over half of the popular vote in the state.  Wisconsin has over 5 million residents.  In 2008, the voter turnout was about 68%.  Had I voted in that election, my vote would have been 1 of 3.4 million (give or take a few thousand).  Now, in a two-party system, this means that during a close election, my vote could count for something (since I’m very confident that no third party candidate will ever stand a chance of actually winning the general election).  But in 2008, the votes from Wisconsin were not a contested issue; it was widely accepted, and proven true, that Wisconsin would go for then Senator Obama.  So I didn’t vote.

My point is this: my vote was about 1 in 3.4 million.  Can you honestly say that that vote would have meant something?  Can you honestly say that the election hinged on my individual contribution?  Naturally, that leads me to the last point…

6) If everyone thought like you did…  There’d be no discussion, because everyone would agree with me.  No, really, this argument is a spurious one because it will never happen.  There is no danger of voter apathy getting so high that a minority manages to elect a president we shouldn’t have.  People aren’t going to read this article and suddenly think, “I’ve been wrong all along!”  “If everyone thought…” well, everyone isn’t going to think like me, so why do we use this argument?  At this point it sounds like a last ditch effort…

The whole point of this rant is not to say that people shouldn’t vote.  I firmly believe that people should participate in our political system.  I think people should express their opinions and discuss issues that matter to them.  When it comes time to elect an official – whether it’s a senator, congressman or the president – people should play an active role.  But I also think that not voting during – or abstaining from – an election is a valid choice, so long as the voter knows why he/she is doing it.

And I do.  So I didn’t vote.

Posted in: Politics