Not voting is an interesting experiment.
Having voted in every election since I turned eighteen, two years ago I opted out of two in a row — a civic election and a federal one — to see how it felt to know that what I did on election day didn’t matter.
A few months earlier, it had been pointed out to me by a well-spoken smartypants that my voting had never influenced public policy in any way. Removing my vote from the totals would have resulted in the same results — the same government, the same policies — in every election I’d ever voted in.
I kind of knew that, but I didn’t quite grasp what it meant. It meant that if I believe having some influence on society is important, I can’t possibly rely on my vote to do that. But voting still somehow conferred a feeling of involvement, of participation in the shaping of society. So I did it anyway, even though the math shows that if I had chosen to clean behind my stove each election day instead of voting, society would have progressed the exact same way, while the state of my kitchen would have improved considerably.
The following election I stayed home, to be sure I knew how it felt to choose to be only a spectator. I had a creeping feeling that I always had been. I didn’t clean my kitchen.
It feels bad, if you’ve never tried it. It sent me into a bit of a cynical spell on the whole matter of electoral politics, and I wrote about it here: If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than vote. I think my logic is still solid, but I do regret the antagonistic tone of it. The comment section contains some pretty rich arguments, if you like arguments.
I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to approach the next election where I live, but I will vote. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to vote now, for someone, even if it’s just to enjoy the walk to the polling station. I still believe that in order to be involved in the electoral process in a meaningful, consequential way, a person has to do much more than vote. I can’t vote for our next president tomorrow because I’m Canadian.
There may be other reasons to vote, even if you understand that your chances of influencing the outcome of the presidential election are much smaller than your chances of dying in a car accident on the way to the poll. For some people, voting time serves as a reminder to re-familiarize themselves with the big issues and personalities in the news, by researching platforms and watching debates. It also feels good, it really does. It feels good to talk about. It feels good to find people who think the same way about something as you do. It feels good to see the whole populace (or maybe half) appear care about the same thing.
As well, the mathematical insignificance of your vote is not necessarily a reason not to vote. I don’t see a lot of reasons to abstain from voting. But one of them is a good one: to confront the reality that you are essentially a non-participant in the game of influencing society’s policies, if your only pointed attempt to do so is to vote in the election. You only have to abstain once to know what that feeling like, when everyone’s talking about nothing else the next day, and you didn’t play the game.
When I abstained, it made me realize that if I truly do believe I ought to bear some responsibility for the state of society, I must do more than vote. I have to either increase my level of participation in the electoral process, by offering more of my time or money to it, or I have to find other ways to influence the course of society. Otherwise, in the years I do vote I’m effectively no less a spectator than I was the year I didn’t vote. I do believe the world would be slightly better off if instead of voting each election day, I had taken the same hour to give blood. For an individual, simply casting a vote a handful of times a decade is an extremely convoluted, low-leverage way to attempt to change public policy.
Again, that’s no reason not to do it. A group of thousand people like you does stand a chance of making a difference to the result. It just doesn’t stand any more of a chance than the other nine hundred ninety-nine did already.
We get a bit hysterical about voting. It’s very much tied up in our emotions, because we know there’s a tremendous difference between having the right to vote and not having the right to vote. We imagine that choosing not to vote in a given year is somehow dishonoring those who have made considerable personal sacrifices to earn us the right to vote (some might argue that a vote for Mitt Romney dishonors them slightly more). The fight for the vote has always been about the fight to be recognized as citizens, and with the right to vote comes the right to not vote, the right to vote in an uninformed and hysterical way, and certainly the right to vote for terrible candidates.
The reality is we have at our feet all kinds of avenues for effecting social change. For most of us, the electoral process is never going to be an avenue where we have much power or leverage, although we always have the right to pursue more of that kind of power by lobbying or volunteering, if that’s where we want to apply our energies. It’s disturbing how often election day is talked about as our one precious chance to be heard, to represent our values to our society. What a naive thought. You have all kinds of opportunities to do that every single day of your life, if it is indeed important to you.
This is not a suggestion not to vote. Vote. Public policy is important. It’s decided by our elected officials, and our elected officials are determined by elections. The outcomes of elections do matter, irrespective of your ability or inability to affect that outcome.
But let’s not forget why they matter. They matter because we know the condition of society matters. What it’s like to live in this delicate interdependent network of human lives we call a society — the weather in this bubble we all share, so to speak — is so huge. So much joy and suffering hinge on it.
Public policy is only one factor that influences society, and elections are only one way to influence public policy, and casting your vote in an election is only one way to influence an election — and honestly if that’s the only action you take towards influencing society, then you stand only an astronomical chance of your contribution changing the weather in here.
If you ask people why they vote you’ll get a lot of responses, but most of them can be boiled down to this: we vote because we want to take part. We want to steer, just a little bit. Some people talk about the squandering of a vote as if it’s a tragedy. So why doesn’t anyone make a big deal out of people squandering any of the other precious rights we can exercise every single day: to protest, to boycott exploitative companies, to start responsible businesses, to overcome destructive habits, to consume fewer resources, to write books, essays or songs that move people, to invent something that makes other lives easier, to make something beautiful, to do work that you love, to be a better friend to your friends and a better partner to your partner, to get to know your neighbors, to be more approachable and more forgiving, to be the one to reach out, to start a movement, to raise your standards for how you spend your time.
The truth is that exercising these rights takes more effort than voting, they have a greater effect on what it’s like to live in society, and so most people do not find themselves compelled to do them. High-hanging fruit.
None of these incredible opportunities mean you shouldn’t exercise your right to vote, whatever it’s worth to you, but it’s strange how that’s the only one for which you will be shit on by ordinary people if you don’t exercise it. If the reason you vote is because you feel some kind of social duty, I hope it’s a small part of it.
Photo by Alex Barth