The concept of ‘the vote as duty’ is designed to keep a populous in check. It turns our eyes away from our own country’s horrific abuses of human rights at home and abroad, it keeps us from thinking about the big picture, it keeps us ignorant of how people in power have turned factions that should be working together against each other since time immemorial.
How do you all think about voting in relation to your citizenship responsibilities and in relation to your political activism? Do you vote? Not vote? Have your views on voting changed over time? What are your reasons for either participating or not participating in the electoral process? If you don’t vote, do you have alternative ways of participating in local and national politics?
BeckySharper: I vote every single time. If the polls open, I’m there, even if it’s a small local election. Hell, I was late getting to the office on 9/11 because I voted in a primary that morning—which turned out to be a good thing.
I vote because the memory of all the women who fought for women’s suffrage is always with me. And I vote because there are so many people in the world—especially women—who have no political representation at all, and if I’m given that privilege, I feel I should exercise it. And, as y’all know, I like to have my say about things.
That said, voting is my personal choice, and I believe that people have an equal right NOT to vote if they so choose. There are some religious minorities like the Amish, Hutterites, Rastafarians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who choose not to vote as a matter of conscience. That’s their right. There are people who don’t vote as a matter of protest–they hate the candidates, they hate the system, they say “fuck it” and don’t go to the polls. That’s their right, too. There are even people who don’t vote because they’re lazy and apathetic. That’s their right, even if I think it’s irresponsible.
I also think that the people who gripe about low voter turn-out always assume that if everyone were forced to the polls, they’d vote for the candidates the gripers want them to. Which ain’t necessarily the case—be careful what you wish for.
Would be curious hearing from people who live in countries where voting is compulsory. Are those laws actually enforced? How are you penalized if you don’t vote? Do you show up and spoil the ballot if you don’t want to choose any of the candidates?
foureleven: Like, Becky I always vote and for the same reasons. Many women and African-Americans fought too hard for me to obtain the right to vote and I never forget that or take it for granted. I have to admit that I was furious that my ex-boyfriend didn’t vote. I complained to him about how many black men can’t vote, but want to because they were one in prison and have subsequently lost their voting rights and that we are underrepresented in voting as a whole. He responded that he doesn’t believe in the two-party system and that the candidates never speak to him personally. After a while, I thought, “I totally get that.” The democrat/republican ideology doesn’t speak to a lot of people and independents rarely get elected, if at all.
When I was studying abroad in England a while back (2005), someone said that non-Americans should have a right to vote in American presidential elections because the president of the U.S. is the leader of the free world and his power affects a lot of countries. I disagreed. Of course, the president has power throughout the world, but we can’t vote in other country’s elections so it doesn’t seem fair in my opinion.
I found this link about compulsory voting around the world. When I was in Belgium, a woman told me about their compulsory voting system and how she wished the same was enforced in the U.S. I’m not entirely sure how accurate this is, but The Guardian lists penalties for Belgium as “People aged 18 and over who do not vote face a moderate fine or, if they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also face difficulties getting a job in the public sector.”
I don’t think voting should be mandatory in the U.S., but I think people should take the time to research candidates and vote in elections if they choose. The concept of mandatory voting is kind of fascinating to me because what if a voter doesn’t like any candidates? Who would they choose; the lesser of the two evils?
annajcook: I grew up in a family where participating in the political process through voting was considered something to be generally positive, though not practiced consistently. My mother readily admits that there were many years when we were small that she didn’t vote at all — even in presidential elections — and often felt overwhelmed by the responsibility to choose a candidate who even approximated her political positions. My siblings and I were all encouraged, as teenagers, to register to vote when we became eligible and to participate in local and national elections — though we were directly pressured to participate in specific elections or vote in certain ways.
As a feminist and as an historian, I’m acutely aware of the fact that women in the United States have had the explicit right to vote for less than a century … and that people compromised their physical health and safety to protest nationally in order to secure those rights. So as an individual, I feel obligated to exercise that ability to vote, even though I recognize how compromised the electoral system often is. And even though I sometimes don’t vote in smaller, local elections (though I always feel faintly guilty when I don’t).
I’m usually a pretty big proponent of stepping outside of the system rather than trying to change it from within … because I do see how participation in “the system” (in whatever context) often leads to the agent of change adapting to the status quo rather than the other way around. So I’ve been trying to think all day about why I feel so strongly on a personal level about participating in the political process in this way. I don’t really have any well-formed answers yet. But I’m enjoying this conversation!
Marie Anelle: Personally I only vote if I have a viable candidate to vote for. Otherwise, I don’t. That’s democracy too. I don’t bother spoiling my ballot because those aren’t actually counted and I shouldn’t have to feel obligated to choose between the lesser of all evils. Pressure to/forcing people to vote does not sound too democratic to me and instead of blaming youth or apathy, maybe we should blame the politicians and the system. There’s only so many broken promises and lizard behavior you can take before you get disenchanted and just not want to do it anymore.
I’m also sick and tired of the “youth” excuse. Young people don’t vote enough and it’s all their fault. Yes, they mobilized for Obama, and yes, that fell to pieces, but maybe it’s not because we’re a bunch of young punks….as I said, disappointment ties into that. Seriously, though, we need something else other than “damn those lazy kids and their nonsense no voting”.
BeckySharper: The other issue here in the US in presidential elections is that the electoral college system makes presidential voting a joke unless you live in a swing state. The reality of representation in our country falls pretty short of the one-man/one-vote ideal. I voted for Barack Obama because I believed in him and his election was a tremendous moment in our nation’s history, etc. But he got 75% of the vote in NY, so I could have stayed home with a clear conscience (this is why I’m considering voting in Virginia in 2012, since it was a battleground state for Democrats). Until we have direct popular election for the presidency, the system is so inherently flawed that it’s not a true representational democracy. Just ask Al Gore.
Marie Anelle: Yeah, we have the parliamentary system up here. We don’t vote for our leader, we vote for a party….which can suck if you like your party but the leader is a joke.
annajcook: Marie Anelle, I’m totally with you when it comes to the generational slagging. My “hell no!” radar goes off whenever people start making generalizations about how a generation or cohort of people move through the world, or what their attitude is. Age is just too broad a category for meaningful analysis. Yes, you can talk about some demographic trends, but it’s really difficult to assign any sort of meaning to those trends without a lot more data. Instead, the mainstream media latches on to any sliver of age-based difference and starts bemoaning “kids these days,” which has got to be the world’s best ANTI-motivator when it comes to encouraging young people to feel invested in a age-diverse world. By painting disparaging caricatures of young people, we reinforce the idea that society should be age-segregated and everyone can only really meaningfully exist within their own little camps. Which is the opposite of what we would need in a healthy, functioning democratic system.
PhDork: While I understand that a small percentage of people choose to “not be political” (which, come on, now: there ain’t no such thing), most people are just. not. interested. Maybe they’re lazy or maybe they’re just trying to feed themselves and their families.
The truth remains that even if you’re not interested in politics, politics is interested in you (so to speak), and I think that most people are bloody fools for not paying attention. And while most of my typical college-age students are apolitical, I don’t attribute that to their age, I attribute it primarily to their class habitus. They don’t care because they don’t need to care. Their lives are generally pretty sweet. Middle to upper-middle class, mostly white, mostly Christian, suburban/exurban, native-born US citizens. There’s not so much to complain about, really, when you’ve got yours. I can’t say that I was terribly different at age 19 or so, and there are plenty of people who are “old enough to know better,” but are just as insulated by their privilege, and just as apathetic.
I always was excited at the prospect of voting, although once I learned about the Electoral College–and what that really means–as an undergrad, the bloom has faded. But regardless, being a citizen in democracy doesn’t mean “voting.” It means being attuned to and active in what’s happening in your neighborhood/borough/city/state/province/region/etc. That’s hard. It’s hard to sort through all the shit to find reliable sources. It’s hard to think critically about different viewpoints. It’s hard to figure out where to put one’s energy. I have trouble keeping up, myself, now.
Which is exactly how to end up with un-democracy. I am for mandatory voting, in theory. I think it should be a day off work for most, a sort of civic duty-party. People fucking love to wave flags and shit, but that’s not what makes you a citizen.