We are one week away from another presidential election in America, and since at least the early 90s, the concept of “throwing away your vote” is tossed around and used against anyone thinking about what we variously can be: voting third party, voting with one’s conscience, protest voting, or choosing not to vote at all.
Is “throwing away your vote” really as bad as the phrase implies? Well, I’ve yet to meet an English phrase that succinctly captures a truth, especially one so popular and contentious.
I’m not sure how long this phrase has been with us. I can’t seem to find an origin story for it. This is unfortunate since knowing how things start teaches us so much. For example, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was an ad slogan by the apple industry in the 1910’s. That fact alone made me realize I had a lot of unchecked assumptions about the sweet fruit as a bastion of health.
But let’s have a reality check about voting in America. We have a pretty solid two party system. Although this is only one step away from a single party system, there’s no legal restrictions that enforce this. It’s largely due to our winner take all methods which gives preference to one or two dominant parties. Over decades, the two parties have expanded power and spread offices into every state. They control most of the political message, and that influence is hard to rise above. We’re all complicit in this, regardless of how we vote. The information flow dominates our culture and political thinking.
We also only focus on people who vote. We think of the nation roughly divided between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, red and blue state, or however we look at it. No President has won with more than 62%, and the last one to get above 60% was Nixon. Famously our past several elections have been close to 50%, with Clinton and Bush winning with less than 50% (thanks in part to third party candidates and the electoral college).
The idea there’s a roughly even split simply isn’t true. The largest political party are the non-voters. No recent presidential election has gotten more than 56% of the vote. This is usually dismissed as apathy, as if apathy was an invalid political stance. What if we didn’t dismiss them?
Then we see that Obama won with 30% of the vote in 2008. Bush won with 24% in 2000 and 28% in 2004. Reagan’s famous 1984 electoral landslide was just over 31% of the popular vote. This reality doesn’t really fit with the power and prestige we attribute to the President, though it does explain why Bush’s “mandate” failed to produce any profound policy changes, and why Obama’s campaign of change failed to change much of anything. You have to go back to LBJ in 1964 to find a president who won a large chunk of the popular vote with a high turn out, and even he didn’t break past 38%.
The reality of the low voter turn out, whether they are the minority of political activists or not, is a critical political barometer. Deciding that it’s too difficult or inconvenient to vote is a political decision, and not always entirely the voter’s fault (look at the revival of attempts to find modern Jim Crow laws).
Whatever the cause, over 70% of the voting age population has not voted for whichever President is in office. And Roughly 40% of the eligible population in any recent election is not registered to vote at all. The largest party in America is the non-voter. What’s the cause of all this apathy if it’s not the fact that no candidate is really speaking to them?
I recently had a discussion online with some friends about this concept. They have very good reasons to vote for one of the two parties (okay, I’ll be honest, reasons to vote for Obama instead of another non-Romney choice). They expressed common arguments to support the idea that a person can throw their vote away.
Votes matter and make a difference. The person we elect will be a symbol for the nation and can make very important declarations that lead us in a particular direction, whether or not their enacted policies do so. This is absolutely true.
Voting for a 3rd party candidate, or not voting at all, makes it more likely that one of the major party candidates will win. This is absolutely true. We certainly saw this happen in 1992, and likely in 2000. In 2000, Ralph Nader famously took a sizeable chunk of the vote and that difference possibly cost Gore the election. But in 1992, Ross Perot became the most successful 3rd party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt 80 years beofre, and although he got no electoral votes, he certainly was a factor in Bush losing the election.
Another reason is that this election has important issues that can’t be sacrificed in the name of idealism. This certainly seems true. In 2012, the big issues for progressives are women’s rights and marriage rights. In 2008 it was the economy. In 2004 it was the “war on terror.” In 2000 it was the economy. In 1996 it was immigration and jobs. In 1992 it was the economy. These aren’t lightly brushed aside.
Because of these two points, the argument is that practicality must win out over idealism. Voting for a potential winner is a primary means of engaging with the political system, if not the only means of having an impact as a citizen. If we who agree on an aspect of change resort to idealism, then we’ll remove our voices and the practical majority will shift the center away from us.
These are all excellent thoughts and opinions. But there’s little support that this is the way things must be done.
Votes do matter. Every action you make matters. The President is an important symbol, but not much more. The election of Obama was a huge sign of how far we’ve come. 50 years prior a man who looks like him would not have been able to sit at a lunch counter in many states. The election and re-election of George Bush highlighted for many progressives that certain economic and social ideas of conservatives are extremely popular. But these men didn’t dramatically change the nation. Obama didn’t make us more racially inclusive. We the people did that. A poll from the Associated Press just came out this week that shows little positive change for prejudice despite, or perhaps even because of, Obama’s presidency. Bush didn’t create business first economic policy or violence against foreign powers. Because of him, we may even have less support for those things than ever. I don’t see how voting is more important than how we live our day to day lives. Unhappy with how things are being talked about? Then educate people, express yourself, tell people about your experience and how and why you expect certain policies to effect you. Don’t vote with the crowd to be heard.
As is probably clear from my run down above, there’s always a crisis. There’s always something that looks like it will destroy our world. But we’re still here. And if our world will end, like it did for the Romans or the Soviets, it will more likely be very slow with enough time to correct, or very sudden, forced by things beyond our control. It’s not going to come down to a vote. Despite there being strong movements, civil rights didn’t happen in the 1870s, or the 1920s, or the 1940s, but not because we picked the wrong president. It happened in the 1960s, once the movements captured the attention of the nation. Yes, Obama is the first sitting President to voice support for marriage rights, and he’s backed that up with repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If McCain was President that certainly wouldn’t happen. If Romney became President, that certainly would come to an end. But it’s only a matter of time. An election is not going to turn this country into medieval barbarism where homosexuals are persecuted. And if it did, there’s enough of us who oppose that idea that it would not last long at all. The point is these crises that seem so important are all transitory. Political change is not about short term solutions and fixes. It’s about the long view. Should a slave abolitionist in 1790 give up just because they realize that slavery will persist well past their death? Should a women’s rights activist in 1820 give up because women won’t get the vote for another century? What should a person do when they recognize that corporate political control or war profiteering are not going to end in their lifetime? Would we begrudge an abolitionist holding their moral ground in the 1808 election, instead of basing their vote on how candidates view the embargo of Europe, the biggest issue of that campaign?
One person rarely makes a different. Even a President. They can certainly be big influencers, but this nation is too large and varied to be swayed by one man, or even his entire cabinet and Supreme Court appointments. And when those things do happen, they get corrected. Having the “right” people in place could not have removed the embraced racism rampant in both the North and South after the civil war. If Nixon won in 1960 he almost certainly would have still started Vietnam, instead of ended it a decade later. Gore would not have avoided getting involved in Afghanistan after 9/11, and though we probably would have avoided Iraq, we might be in Iran or Syria instead. Lincoln’s election sparked the Civil War that he’s credited with ending, and he made no moves to end slavery until his hand was forced. It’s completely illogical to act as if every major success and mistake of a nation is the result of the person we elected, instead of allowed, caused, or embraced by the aggregate of us.
Don’t let anyone tell you who you should vote for. If you think Obama is necessary to protect women’s rights and gay rights, then vote for him. If you think our use of drones and growing military threats to Iran are a bigger danger, than act on those. Each person must decide what issues are important to them. And whether you are playing the short game or a long game, do it with open eyes. Either way you are voting your conscience.
But do this too. Talk about the issues. Open yourself to the experience of other people. Listen to what really matters to other people, and get to the root of what really matters to you. It’s easy on the human rights stuff, but no one has a instinctual response to economic policy. Our beliefs are built up on a long life of impressions and knowledge and emotional responses. Whether you think taxes should be cut or health care expanded, there’s an emotional truth underneath which you share in common with every human on the planet. Tap into that truth. Find ways to share your truth so that others understand you. Create empathy.
And always, always vote your conscience. Never throw that away.