On April 21st, 2011, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at the University of Vermont. I’d never heard Bernie speak before, but I sensed his popularity among Vermont voters by their big red bumper stickers proclaiming “Re-elect Bernie” in white letters. Bernie ran through standard Democratic positions in front of this crowd of students from UVM and other nearby colleges. He hit the looming deficits, federal aid to college students, and championed access to health care for all Americans. Bernie addressed Washington deadlock and lamented the difficulty senators have in working for their constituents in light of lobbyists and corporate influence. Bernie engaged the student crowd with rising inflections and genuine admonishments of his colleagues’ lack of seriousness about governing.
I grew up in Washington, DC, among a very liberal household, so none of Bernie’s initial points were new to me. He caught my attention, however, when he started explaining his belief in the political system. Despite the gridlock, despite the corporate interests, he had faith in our democracy. Who wins when the young and apathetic don’t vote, he asked? The corporations and billionaires. They don’t need any extra votes, for their money buys enough influence. There are millions of Americans, however, who don’t receive bribes from the Koch Brothers or Exxon-Mobile. By exercising their fundamental right to vote, we can dilute the influence of corporate money. Refusing to vote–for whatever reason–only concentrates that influence.
I’ve heard many explanations for why people don’t vote. According to my informal observations, they seem fall into three main categories:
1. Procedural, e.g., “I can’t get off work,” “The line at the polls was too long,” “I didn’t know I needed to register early,” “I didn’t understand the ballot initiatives, so I only voted for president,” “I didn’t have enough time to research the issues,” etc.
2. Motivational, e.g., “There aren’t any issues of particular concern to me,” “What does it matter, politicians are all the same,” “Government doesn’t affect my life,” etc.
3. Ideological, e.g., “Voting supports the two-party system,” “Voting supports the status quo and the systemic patriarchy/racism/-ism that it represents,” etc.
There are likely other categories, but let’s stick with these for now. Procedural reasons for not voting are unfortunate, but relatively easy to fix. Voter registration drives, flexible early voting options, poll monitors, get out the vote efforts, and public information campaigns can make it easier for people to vote. Indeed, I’ve spent a number of evenings and weekends in the last month helping the Obama, Tester, and Washington United for Marriage campaign prevent procedural obstacles from keeping their supporters from the polls. Despite the sometimes awkward conversations with strangers and all-too-frequent rude hangups, these strategies work.
The second reason for not voting is more difficult to address. I’ve knocked on doors and called a lot of people so far this election season. When faced with an undecided voter a week before the election, a standard question is, “What issues are of particular concern to you?” Most stare blankly at me or go silent on the phone and then claim they can’t think of a thing. Perhaps they don’t understand the role that government plays lives. I wouldn’t say such triggering words to a “small-government” conservative, of course. However, I find disturbing the willful disregard for the positive impact government has on our day-to-day lives. Our food is safe because the FDA regulates bacteria and contamination levels. We are paid time-and-a-half over 40 hours a week and are usually not made to work weekends because the government stood up for workers early in the 20th Century. Many have access to quality public education, and it is deplorable that this opportunity does not extend to every American child. For nearly a century, government prevented commercial banks from the type of risky, profit-seeking practices that triggered the Great Recession. Why have only Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Byron Dorgan connected the dots between repealing the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and the dangerous steps commercial banks took into reckless investing? Government–in the guise of police, fire fighters, and EMTs–is responsible for keeping us safe. Whether or not today’s current government succeeds in delivering quality services is not the point, but rather that it is government’s fundamental role to do so.
More mundane reasons aside, the the Civil Rights Era Democratic Party forced the federal government to stand up for subjugated. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and decisions of the Warren and Berger Courts outlawed discrimination and affirmed the personhood of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups and women. Federal marshals protected African American students after Brown v. Board ordered the integration of American schools. Roe v. Wade protected a woman’s right to privacy in her decision whether or not to have an abortion, ending years of male-dominated society’s female bodily integrity. As Robert Self writes in Salon,
“Even more than sex, the body moved to the center of women’s politics. Women’s liberationists recognized that what they had been taught to think of as personal and private was in fact social and political — not unlike homophile activists and their eventual successors in the gay liberation and gay rights movements. Bodies might be individual, but their treatment by society, medicine, the media, and other male-dominated institutions constituted a collective political problem for women. This newfound understanding, coupled with an ethic of togetherness, produced a surge of activism and institution-building nearly on par with the black freedom movement. Their energy and their numbers, as much as any other single force, changed the context in which Americans discussed abortion.”
After two decades of stunning backwardness (c.f., Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Defense of Marriage Act), the federal executive branch has finally begun defending gay Americans. The repeal of DADT, order to not defend DOMA, extension of rights and benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees all demonstrate the federal government’s ability to right previous wrongs. The Second Federal Court of Appeals recently found that laws restricting the rights of gay Americans deserve “heightened scrutiny,” the intermediate level of judicial review required by the Equal Protection Clause. While this case will no doubt be appealed to the Supreme Court, the current ruling holds that laws restricting the rights of gays and lesbians are unconstitutional unless the law’s proponent can prove an “exceedingly persuasive justification” that the discriminatory action furthers a compelling governmental interest. With state legislatures across the country endorsing marriage equality (despite the National Organization for Marriage’s insidious efforts to repeal the laws), I hope we are experiencing a resurgence of Civil-Rights-Era-style government intervention.
With this fundamental purpose of government–that of standing up for the oppressed–in mind, I have difficulty believing the arguments of those who don’t vote for ideological reasons. One of my friends in this camp tried explaining that the entire system is too corrupt to participate in it. By consistently voting for the lesser of two evils, he argued, we merely prevent serious enough hardship that will trigger true revolution. What about the real people who would be hurt along the way by draconian reduction in government assistance, lack of health care, and an economy designed only to benefit CEOs and hedge fund managers? He shrugged nonchalantly while saying something about necessary sacrifices toward engendering true societal reform. We had this conversation on Election Day 2010, when the Tea Party swept into power in the US House. Since then, those “necessary sacrifices” have mainly befallen women (see Governor Ultrasound of Virginia, the rash of “personhood” bills introduced in state legislatures and even the US House by VP-nom Paul Ryan, and continual attempts to eradicate Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics), racial minorities (see attempts to disenfranchise African American voters in the South through voter ID laws, the attempted restriction of early voting in Ohio to members of the military to avoid black churches busing parishioners to the polls, etc.), and the LGBT population (attempts to repeal same-sex marriage laws in Washington, Maine, and Maryland and to prevent it via constitutional amendment in Minnesota). Sure, we could wait until circumstances become sufficiently oppressive to provoke an all-out, blood-in-the-streets rebellion. But why not work incrementally toward acceptance and egalitarianism if more people will enjoy more rights for a longer period of time?
While calling Washington state voters this afternoon for Washington United for Marriage, I spoke briefly with an unregistered voter. I went through my introductory spiel, to which she responded, “I’m not registered to vote. Please take me off your list.” I sputtered, “It may not be too late to register!” I heard the phone click on “may.” I wasn’t bothered by the rudeness of being hung up on–I’m well used to it by now. What bothered me was her nonchalantness, her pride, in being not registered to vote. These folks, like the undecided voters who profess they’re not particularly concerned about anything in the election, disturb me. Perhaps they’re ignorant about the implications of government on their everyday lives, like the apathetic non-voters discussed above. A more sinister explanation seems more likely to me, however. It’s like these folks are successful enough in their own lives that they no longer have to pay attention to the issues at stake in this election. These I’ve-got-mine folks turn their backs on Americans who are not so privileged economically or socially or politically, whose very civil rights, access to health care, and livelihoods hang in the balance of the Electoral College or yay-nay votes on marriage equality. These people feel comfortable sitting on the sidelines while whole sections of the American population–gays and lesbians, women, the poor, African Americans, undocumented immigrants–wait with bated breath upon entrenched privileged interests to deem whether they are welcome in American society.
Just like a voiceless bystander further enables a bully to keep punching a powerless kid, those who eschew voting on November 6th enable white, male, heterosexual power to continue its stranglehold on American society. Pullitzer Prize-winner playwright Doug Wright expressed this point powerfully in a recent viral Facebook post:
“I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, “My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.
It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you “disagree” with your candidate on these issues.”
Add in undecided and non-voters to Wright’s statement, and I agree wholeheartedly. I might even better understand those acting in own self-interest than those who simply don’t care. Those who believe in equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, people of color, and the poor but don’t vote are just as complicit in the problem as those who vote for oppressive candidates and policies. Generations before us fought hard for the right to vote. To honor their legacy, we must both vote and make it easier for others to do so. It really does mean something.