To vote or not to vote

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.


  1. says

    What’s dangerous is that with a policy of obstructionism making Congress an opposition to everything Obama proposes, the Tea Party has turned this country into a parliamentary system, when the founding fathers originally made a government of checks-and-balance with a long tradition of compromise to get anything done. The only way to get out of the disease of gridlock is to throw the GOP out from the three branches of government in the next election.

    As to your point about third party, that’s okay in a parliamentary system. But the US does NOT have a parliamentary system, and therefore casting a vote for third party is a waste.

    Lastly, voter’s dissafection is in the GOP’s favor, as they are very good in getting their base out to vote. Consider that in the election of 2010, only 40% of eligible voters cast their votes, which handed the House to the GOP. Democracy only works with a well-informed population who votes for the best candidate. By not voting, you let the others, a minority of 40% in 2010, decide for the whole country.

  2. SRA says

    I am surprised you are voting NO on issue 2. I would have thought that you would support collective bargaining rights for state employees.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    SRA, “no” is the correct (anti-SB5) vote on Issue 2. Please don’t get confused about this when you vote!

  4. says


    You are right in reading my intent. The reason for the confusion is that the law that denied collective bargaining rights has already passed. The referendum is worded such as to ask people whether they approve of the law (a YES vote) or whether they disapprove (a NO vote). So a majority NO vote will result in the repeal of the law.

  5. says

    Anyone who says that non-voters have no right to complain about the government needs to re-take their civics class.

    In the American constitutional scheme, sovereignty resides in, and flows from, the people. Explicit recognition of that fact in the 1780s was a remarkable statement of republican principles, and arguably America’s most important contribution to political theory.

    It is entirely consistent with this basic republican principle for the people to withdraw their support from an existing system of governance and choose to create new structures better suited to their objectives. This is, in fact, exactly what happened when the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the Constitution of 1787.

    Now, one could retort (and the late Howard Zinn probably would have) that this high-minded talk of popular sovereignty was never more than a smokescreen for the actual dominance of the elite. There has always been a certain tension between theory and practice. Nonetheless, those three magic words -- “We the People” -- remain the ultimate riposte to defenders of the status quo.

  6. Evan says

    I’ve always wondered if we could get around the not-voting-as-political-protest issue by casting ballots, but not selecting anyone (which allows you to still vote for important local issues). It’s harder to mistake a blank ballot for apathy than someone not showing up at all.

    On the same topic, I recently discovered this youtube series describing voting systems, which includes an argument that simple-majority voting structures will inevitably lead to two party rule:

    It reminds me, also, that our constitution was written before anyone thought of game theory.

  7. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I disagree with you on this because it is impossible to know what percentage of the population didn’t vote in protest and what percentage didn’t vote out of apathy or ignorance.

    Instead I would suggest a movement is needed to call for increased use of the write-in candidate. If people who are dissatisfied or disgusted with the candidates, or the system, would unite to write-in an agreed upon phrase — Anonymous, for instance — that could be tallied as a protest vote, then we would know what part of American voters stands where.

    A write-in vote for Anonymous sends the right message which is: I am an engaged American who is not happy with our current two-party system.

    Even better would be a mandate to make the addition of None Of The Above an option on all ballots for all races and issues.



  8. Keesu no Sotsugyousei says

    Jeff makes a good point in that not voting doesn’t provide sufficiently detailed feedback to the democratic system; if politicians knew that low voter turnout was mostly due to protest rather than ignorance, changing their message (and ideally their actions in office) to reach the “protest votes” in an attempt to more easily win the election could in theory make them more representative of what the country actually wants.
    It’d be interesting if the “None of the Above” option were both required on all ballots and had some sort of consequence if it won a majority. I’m not sure what that consequence would be, but it seems like it could be designed to encourage politicians of any party to avoid alienating huge subsets of the population in favor of pandering to their vocal minority of supporters or their wealthy minority of campaign contributors.

  9. P Smith says

    The US’s problem -- which Canada, England, Australia and other democracies don’t have -- is the ability for lobbyists and crooks to buy politicians. It’s not that it can’t be done in other countries, it’s because other countries have multiparty democracies with occasional minority governments. The US always has a majority government, and that’s its problem.

    When the ruling party has to listen to other parties in order to stay in power, they stop listening to lobbyists. But that’s only possible when you have at least three major political parties, each with enough that it requires at least two parties cooperating to attain a majority. The US has only two parties so it always has a majority government.

    The US is no more a democracy than Mexico was for decades when the PRI was the only party, or the communist party in the USSR or mainland China. Absolute power of majority governments corrupts absolutely. Until and unless a third major party arises, or the existing system is overthrown as the French revolution overthrew its corrupt hierarchy, no real change will ever occur. The wealthy will continue to nickel and dime the average American -- and other countries -- out of their nickels and dimes.


  10. Tim says

    I like Jeff’s and Keesu’s idea about “None of the Above.” How about if NOTA gets more votes, then we have to have another election, and the parties that ran cannot run again?

  11. Tim says

    Good lord! Thanks for posting the links to the Ohio issues, Mano. Who wrote the language on these? Could it be any more confusing? (Thanks also to Steve for clarifying.)

  12. says

    Have you heard that “those who don’t participate on an parents meeting is the one who complains much after the school policy are implemented?”. It is much the same in national politics, those who don’t know complains much which most of the time they don’
    t know what they are saying.

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