Recently at a dinner someone made a comment that one hears often, that those who do not vote in elections have no right to then complain about the government’s actions or the way society is run. The speaker was implying that voting is the admission price one pays for the privilege of entering the public debate.
I disagree with this sentiment, for many reasons. For one thing, one can have principled non-voting. If one thinks the system is rigged, and that elections are merely a façade designed to give legitimacy to a corrupt political system, then not voting can be a very principled and political act. In such cases, not voting is akin to a boycott, or voting with one’s feet. There is a reason that almost all totalitarian societies still feel obliged to hold fraudulent elections in which the ruler gets an overwhelming majority, because elections tend to confer at least some legitimacy on the winner, even if it is rigged, as long as participation is reasonably high. This is why in many autocratic countries people are forced to vote or the ballot boxes are stuffed with counterfeits, while opponents of the regime urge people to boycott them.
Those who say that one must vote in order to have a public voice in policy debates tend to be of the opinion that elections in the US still provide us with real choices and thus not voting must mean that people are too lazy or indifferent to bother to register and vote, and thus are not deserving of a voice. Even if it were true that people are too apathetic to vote, why should such people not be entitled to have a say in public debates? When people have been beaten down and see no hope, while they may not actively boycott elections, they may simply disengage from a political system that is perceived as merely a game of musical chairs. Yet they may well have valid concerns and deserve to be heard.
The election system in the US is partially rigged, not in the sense of pre-determining which individuals will be the winners but in that the nominees of the major parties are in the pockets of the oligarchy and their eventual nominees will be servants of the oligarchy. Thus the only choices we have are those involving social issues that do not affect oligarchic interests. But one cannot totally dismiss the value of even that limited choice. At least on the margins, it could matter who wins office, since the holders of elective positions can affect the lives of real people. Who gets appointed to judiciary and regulatory bodies and how much money is allocated to serve the needs of the underprivileged can have a major impact on the lives of some of the neediest people.
Yes, both major parties care mostly about protecting the interests of the oligarchy but the supporters of Republicans tend to be more callous and ruthless about the poor than the supporters of Democrats. Countering that is the fact that Democratic party can more easily get away with hurting the poor because of the perception that they care about them.
And this is what poses the quandary. Should we not vote to show our displeasure with an oligarchic system? Or should we vote so that we can influence policy on at least social issues? Those of us who see the election system as rigged to present us largely with choices between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both controlled by the oligarchy, always face a wrenching decision at election time. It would be nice if the system in the US made it easier for third parties to form to give us more choices. In the UK and Canada, they now effectively have three-party systems. It is true that third parties have not resulted in fundamental changes in those countries as yet, but it does provide more choice and opportunities for a break from oligarchic control.
I have on occasion broken free of the two-party trap. In 2000 I voted for Ralph Nader because there really was little difference between the stands that Al Gore and George W. Bush took on the issues of that election. I have to admit that after the Bush-Cheney regime unleashed its mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt some guilt about possibly being complicit in helping them come to power, even though no one could have foreseen the events of 9/11 that provided the opening for those actions. But now that Barack Obama, who promised even more change than Gore, has been elected and has turned out to be terrible on issues of civil liberties and war, I suspect that Gore would have likely been as bad as Bush if he had been president after 9/11. The oligarchy keeps a tight leash on those who it allows to hold high office.
It is also not clear that third parties are good agents of change. Maybe true change comes about through pressure politics, by actions in the street that can really frighten the elected officials, whoever they are, that they are losing control. The Arab spring was a model, as is the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Because of all these reasons, I feel conflicted every time elections come around and there is no candidate that I feel strongly positive about. I come from a tradition that inculcated in me a sense that it is one’s duty to vote and I have a long history of voting whenever the occasion comes around. I feel strongly the tug to the polling place that I find hard to resist. And yet I often feel almost dirty after doing so, that by voting I am simply perpetuating a bad system by participating in it and voting for the least worst candidate. This is why I refuse to wear the “I voted” stickers that they hand out at polling places. I do not necessarily see it as a badge of honor or a sign of civic virtue.
I personally feel much better about voting on issues, where one can take a definite stand. In elections in Ohio on November 8th, I will enthusiastically vote NO on Issue 2, the referendum that seeks to repeal the law that the Republican-controlled legislature and governor passed removing collective bargaining rights for state employees, and another NO on Issue 3 that seeks to pass a constitutional amendment that effectively nullifies the health care reforms that were passed.