During the contentious election year that we just experienced here in the United States, it did not seem fitting for me to add to the controversy. A single look at my Facebook feed or glance at the Twittersphere was all it took to convince me that one more opinion was the last thing the world needed. I thus remained mostly silent and only posted my analysis to this blog a week after the vote was held. I think I said everything I needed to say there, and I do not intend to rehash what has already been hashed to death.
However, that election has caused me to return again to some perennial issues involved with voting. One such issue that is unique to the United States is that of the Electoral College, which I addressed a few weeks back. Today, I would like to talk about something else: the right to vote itself.
It never fails that when an election is about to take place, I hear at least one person make mention of the fact that people died to give me the right to vote. This concept is not confined to the good old U.S. of A. Last summer, when the Brits were about to vote on whether or not to leave the European Union, The Independent ran an editorial with the headline “Thousands died to earn your right to vote – now you must exercise it”.
I am not going to argue that such a statement is without foundation. Throughout world history, both men and women have sacrificed life and livelihood in the hope of securing a vast array of rights, one of which would be the right to vote. While I cannot think of an actual shooting war where voting rights was the sole motivation, and the common soldier may have any number of things on his or her mind when facing down bullets, I certainly accept that those who fought at Yorktown, or Gettysburg, or Omaha Beach did so in the name of freedom of one sort or another.
The same could be said of the generations of women who made enormous sacrifices to gain the right to vote, the Civil Rights activists who have worked to ensure that ethnic minorities are not defrauded of that right, and those around the world who are struggling even now for democratic ideals. The standard assumption is that such sacrifices place upon us a duty, and the duty that is most commonly mentioned is the obligation to vote.
As someone who has always been deeply interested in politics, I admit that I have been darn near scandalized at times when friends tell me they do not intend to vote, or that they have neglected to vote in the past. Such talk was particularly abhorrent to me back in 2004, when I was exactly five days too young to vote in the presidential election. Most of my fellow college students were old enough, but due to the difficulties involved, they declined their right. My husband can tell you that when we were dating, we had at least one heated discussion about how his neglect of the ballot box offended me, particularly as he seemed to have so many opinions about how the government ought to operate.
However, I would like to suggest today that in addition to the right to vote, we also have a right to not vote. Yes, I can already here the cries of, “Heresy!” After all, most of us realize that in any given election, the margin of victory for the winner is smaller than the number of people who simply didn’t show up to vote. This can be particularly frustrating when your preferred candidate loses and you feel that, if only those apathetic people had shown up, such a disaster would not have occurred. Given all the time and energy that is spent trying to convince people to vote, it seems almost heartless of me to suggest anything but mandatory suffrage.
Well, since we’re on the topic, did you know that there are many countries where voting is compulsory? My mind goes immediately to places like North Korea, where everyone is required to turn up on polling day despite only having one possible choice. This is apparently just a way for the government to keep tabs on them and attempt to assert its own legitimacy, i.e. “Look! Everyone voted for us, so they must love us!”
But it’s not only hermit dictatorships that place this requirement on their populace. The majority of South America has compulsory voting, at least officially. (The number of places that actually enforce the fines and other penalties written into law are somewhat fewer. After all, it costs the government money to go after people.) The one that surprised me was Australia: yes, Australia, our freedom loving friend Down Under. Voting in federal elections has been compulsory in Australia since 1924, although the penalties for violating this rule seem to be mild. It is also possible to vote by mail if you cannot make it to the polling place.
Even so, the very fact that there are countries where voting is mandatory should prove to us that the right to not vote exists within the United States. And if there was ever a year in which this was brought home to us, it was 2016. (May it rest in…peace?) In the past, the arguments I had heard for not voting usually had to do with the inconvenience involved or the lack of personal knowledge about the various races. In 2016, I was having people who normally voted tell me that for the first time, they were considering abstaining. The reasons they gave had to do with conscience: either they could not bring themselves to vote for any of the candidates, they were so fed up with the system that they wanted no part in it, or some combination of the two.
Certain religious groups in the Anabaptist tradition have always abstained from voting for reasons of principle, but this comes more from a desire to remain separate from “the world” than a particular aversion to individual candidates – they hold to a general principle of nonresistance. What I have seen more recently are people who believe in civic engagement, who care about the political situation in this country, but who nevertheless decide not to vote for reasons of conscience. Is that wrong? Can you be a “good American” and not vote? Can you be a “good Christian” and not vote?
Here I see a difference between the obligation we all have to act as good citizens and the actual ticking of a box (or touching of a box on a screen, as is the case where I live). Within a Christian framework, the command to love your neighbor, to act as a Good Samaritan, and to seek the good of the country in which you live places upon us a duty to our fellow man. Many other religions hold to similar notions of civic duty. Even those who are not particularly religious usually state that we ought to make society a better place, to treat those around us with respect, and to perform certain altruistic acts as the situation warrants.
But is that the same as a requirement to vote? Read through the whole Bible if you wish: you’ll never find a command to “vote”. We tend to see voting as a righteous, principled act – the very height of virtue within a society. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that no matter how we vote, we always do so for selfish reasons.
Sure, we all like to complain that people who vote for the “other” candidate, whoever he or she may be, are motivated by the wrong things. Perhaps they want the government to do something for them. Perhaps they want the government to keep someone else from doing something. Perhaps they think a certain candidate’s policies will favor them financially or socially. Perhaps they are simply voting out of fear. Even if you say that you are not voting for your own reasons, but to make the country a better place in general or a better place for your descendants, that is still selfish. You are still choosing something that you like more over something that you like less. I agree with those philosophers who say that natural man is incapable of committing any truly altruistic acts. Certainly, some are less self-serving than others, but we are ultimately selfish beings, and that is true even (or especially) in the ballot booth.
There is also the sad fact that none of us vote with perfect knowledge. When we go to tick that box, some of us are more informed than others, but none of us can know everything about the people whose names we find on that page. We cannot predict all the possible ramifications of a budget proposal, the cases that might come before a judge, or what foreign crises might hit during a presidential administration. Therefore, no voter is ever 100% informed, and were we to be honest, most of us are far less than 100% informed. The number of people who really know the details of the county auditor’s race is small indeed.
You can thus make an argument that rather than having everyone vote in a bunch of races where they have very little knowledge, thus cancelling out the votes of the few people who actually do know the behind-the-scenes details, it might be better to only vote in those races where one has a decent amount of knowledge.
Of course, the ideal would be to become as informed as possible about every race and thus be able to vote wisely, but we must admit that this is not always a realistic possibility. I myself have a degree in political science and another in international security, have twice served as a U.S. congressional intern, spent four years working for the government of Egypt, and over the course of my 30 years have paid far more attention to the political situation in this country than the average person. Yet, even when I go digging online for information about some of these local races, I come up mostly empty. I try to become an informed voter, but sometimes there isn’t much information to be had.
Is it not a better civic virtue to care for one’s neighbor, to defend the cause of those who are vulnerable, to live for others and not for ourselves? Yes, we can endeavor to do those things when we vote, but we must realize that there are a lot of steps between voting and actually producing positive change. First, the right person has to get elected. Second, they have to be serious about doing what they promised. Third, people and circumstances must align in a way that allows them to accomplish those things. Then you hit up against the consequences of an action, and here I am reminded of something one of my professors always said about politics: “You don’t solve problems. You just sequence them.”
By contrast, if you give someone a glass of water, they have a glass of water right then and there. If you treat someone with kindness, you have already done something that no politician may be able to accomplish. This is not to downplay the role of government, which under the right circumstances can be a powerful force for positive change. Kindness alone doesn’t stop crime, grow the economy, etc. But we must have a realistic picture of what government is actually able to accomplish and the number of obstacles that stand between a candidate on the campaign trail and the actual fulfillment of the promises they’re making.
Ever since the Roe v. Wade decision, the pro-life movement has placed a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the U.S. Supreme Court has a pro-life majority. They have supported presidential candidates who pledged to appoint pro-life justices or enact other anti-abortion measures. What has happened? Well, some purportedly pro-life justices were appointed, but as it turned out, they had a great deal of respect for constitutional precedent. Roe v. Wade has not been overturned, and even if that were to happen, it would only be establishing a federal principle. Short of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would be nearly impossible to achieve, states would probably still get to determine their own abortion policies. In effect, this is almost taking place already, as there are certain states where it is very difficult to get a legal abortion, while others make it incredibly easy.
Do you know what has affected the number of abortions in this country more than anything else? Financial status. A woman’s financial situation may well be the number one factor that determines whether or not she has an abortion, so when times are good and people are working, they are less likely to end their pregnancies…and also more likely to try to get pregnant. Do you know what else keeps people from having abortions? A network of family and friends to support them. Access to good healthcare and the knowledge that they and their child will be taken care of and not judged indiscriminately.
Am I suggesting that there is no point in voting for pro-life candidates? No, I am not. Am I suggesting that we should not demonize someone who does not vote for a “pro-life” candidate or who chooses not to vote, accusing them of washing the blood off their hands in the manner of Pontius Pilate? (I have heard such words spoken!) Yes, that would be more in line with what I am saying.
The right to vote is a wonderful development in human history. It is worth defending, and it ought to be defended. In fact, we should be working even harder to ensure that every single American citizen of voting age is able to vote. We should be making it easier to vote, not harder. We should not believe the lie that because we are somehow “better” or “smarter” than other people, we have more of a right to vote than they do. As I have pointed out, no one votes for entirely altruistic reasons, and no one votes with complete knowledge.
Voting is not the highest civic virtue. Love for one another is the highest civic virtue. If we can bring ourselves to vote, then we should, but a person who declines for the sake of conscience is not committing some grave sin. Neither is the person who chooses to hold their nose and vote despite their dislike for the candidates. The person who judges someone else, puts a guilt trip on them, and considers themselves superior – from a biblical perspective, they are the one in sin.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25b) So Jesus Christ said, and thus I believe. Give the government your vote, but do not give them your soul, and do not consider voting a replacement for true civic virtue. Respect the government. Honor those in authority. In fact, honor everyone! Seek the welfare of all people, whether or not there is anything in it for you.
There is a right to vote. There is a right to not vote. I respect them both. I respect you, my friend.