With every election, we become bombarded with messages telling us that we have to vote, and necessarily on one of the two major party lines. However, this blind faith in voting as a cornerstone of our democracy makes politics into a hobby, becoming a dead-end rather than a gateway to civic engagement. Examining why people can’t and won’t vote shows how treating voting as the means by which we bring about systemic change, and electoral politics as a fair and impartial system, is misleading and, ultimately, to our detriment.
One of the dangers of the American system and our belief in democratically elected representation is that we have a tendency to overestimate the power of voting, especially in presidential elections. The electoral college in and of itself should cast a long shadow of doubt over the power that most votes have. The average voter in California has significantly less weight than the average voter in Wyoming, and the average Wyoming voter has three times more weight than the average national vote. The last two of three presidents were elected to office despite losing the popular vote; in the last election three million more people voted for the democratic nominee Hillary Clinton than for President Trump. Is it really fair that those three million votes essentially didn’t count because of where they were? The electoral college places a disproportionate amount of power into a few states, which ends up boiling down to a few counties and valuing those swing voters over other voters in the country. On another note of voter disenfranchisement, felons live in this country, pay taxes and are in many ways more acutely impacted by the laws our elected representatives pass because of lack of access to key social resources like public housing. Yet, they are often unjustly prevented from voting, like in Florida when, in response to people voting to restore voting rights to felons, the state legislature mandated that felons pay court fees, an exorbitant cost to vote. There are deliberate measures, mostly coming from the GOP, to limit voting locations within black communities. This voter disenfranchisement is not accidental; it is a systemic tool for suppression, allowing the American political system to endure and perpetuate its own inequities.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, several studies were done on voter abstention, finding that the majority of non-voters were lower-income and non-white, hardly a portrait of privilege. Even with the knowledge of the razor-thin margin in Wisconsin and that a vote for Clinton could have swung the state in the other direction, these non-voters did not regret their abstention. They overwhelmingly did not believe that a Clinton victory, much less any election outcome, would bring meaningful improvement to their lives. A Milwaukee barber remarked that no president, including Obama, had done anything to improve the lives of black people, and that neither Clinton nor Trump would “do anything for us anyway.” This absention does not reflect laziness or a lack of civil engagement, but rather a deep disillusionment with a system that claims to give a voice to the people but allows for elected representatives to not fulfill their promises without consequences. In the aftermath of the 2016 election and 2019 primaries, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn explained that non-status quo candidates have the most power to bring non-voters to the poll, and we see this on both sides of the aisle. In the 2016 election, Trump mobilized a powerful rural white-working class voter base, who were increasingly disillusioned by the coastal elites’ apathy towards their (very real) economic plight. Similarly, Sanders’ base was bolstered by traditional non-voters: In the primaries, Sanders received the highest levels of support from nonvoters on the left compared to Biden and Warren.
Instead of unequivocally shaming nonvoters, we should recognize that voting abstention reflects endemic issues in this country, from disenfranchisement to disillusionment with the two parties. This should make us question how and why voting is important, especially when a significant portion of the population experiences difficulty in voting and when the choice is between two sanitized options, both of whom are deeply invested in perpetuating the status quo that gives them to power. And this goes for the vast majority of elections.
For those of you who are considering not voting and questioning how much your vote really counts in the face of all of this, I get it. But if you have the means to vote, you should. No, your vote in the general elections is not a determinant of systemic change, it is barely even your civic duty. However, voting does set the context in which we protest and act. It’s a collective decision for the milieu in which political change can be effected more efficiently. Voting mobilizes yourself and your communities, but your mobilization should not be a reaction to others and for the sake of fighting an enemy.
What are our options in addition to voting? Truthfully, I don’t know. Most of us reading this are all average people with very little political power, even if we are armed with our vote, which is not by accident. But the very least we can do is think critically and start conversations about the endemic flaws in our system of electoral politics, even and especially now in an all-consuming election that feels like life or death. Yes, vote, but simultaneously stop expecting and relying on a broken system to produce the change we want to see in this world, and mobilize beyond the voting booth.
Robyn Bardmesser is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Impolitburo runs alternate Fridays this semester.