I was so relieved to see this in my feedreader: a Racialicious post called “On Forcing Myself to Vote.” In it, Latoya Peterson describes the malaise that sets in when a thoughtful, industrious person begins to wonder if there is any point in voting in U.S. elections:
So wait, we vote them back in and then demand change? After they already got what they needed? That looks like an exchange based on trust, and trust has been broken. Its true, Obama and the Dems have done a lot while in office. But a lot of these things were compromised, and a Democratic majority seems to have done little to push the most progressive reforms into law.
What I want to say in response is not an argument against voting, but rather an examination of what has gone so horribly wrong that conscientious citizens feel hopeless about the voting process.
Problem #1: You need ungodly amounts of money to run for almost any office.
I know upper middle class people who can’t afford to run for city council. Does that give you some idea how expensive it is to run for a higher office than that? To run, you must either
- Be so well off you really can’t appreciate the problems involved in struggling to make ends meet, no matter how fine your intentions, or
- Promise so many favors in exchange for contributions that you’ll spend all your time in office doing what your contributors want instead of what you believe in.
Either way, you’re not going to be able to act on anything that doesn’t do more for the “haves” than the “have nots.” The game is rigged. Some well-written campaign finance reform would fix this. Maybe a low set limit on what candidates can spend, with a limit to how long campaigns can run, and/or maybe a limit to how many commercials and tours and fliers candidates can utilize. Which plan would work is hardly the point: it’ll never happen because the very people who are benefiting from this way of doing things are the only ones who can make that happen.
Voting, unfortunately, just shows them this system is working. The higher the turnout, the less chance they will ever find an incentive to change it. And while abysmal turnout might indeed get the message across, at least loudly enough for the press to speculate about it, I can’t see how it would damage the right candidates in the right way to get them to change anything.
Problem #2: Your first concern after getting into office is getting re-elected.
Candidates spend the majority of their time in office not doing the stuff that’s required of their office, but planning their next run for the same office again. It’s not about getting stuff done; it’s about making us think they got stuff done and they’ll get more stuff done. Most of their energy goes into this giant public relations spin. Again, some limitations on campaigning could be the solution. Maybe some restructuring of how elections happen.
But you can’t use your vote to change this, because everyone’s doing it. If you do come across one who’s not doing it, yay, but she’s not going to get re-elected. Because of our third problem:
Problem #3: Voters don’t think.
I’ll never forget how appalled I was ten years ago to hear voters on CNN shrug and complain that Gore wasn’t so affable while Bush “just seems like somebody you could go have a beer with.” Let’s be blunt here: letting everyone over eighteen vote is a terrible idea if people are going to vote that unthinkingly. U.S. people seem to think, by and large, that it’s elitist to apply critical thinking. To know Africa is a continent and not the country Sarah Palin thinks it is. To be able to name the fifty states and understand how the electoral college works.
This is not elitism. This is your duty as a citizen: to be as informed and educated about your country as your brain will allow you to be.
But this is the one part of the voting procedure we might actually have some power to change. By speaking out – to acquaintances, on blogs, whatever – we can contribute toward creating an atmosphere in which it is shameful to vote without thinking. To be profoundly uninformed about your own country, let alone the rest of the world. If enough of us speak up, and more people join us, eventually you hit a critical mass, and suddenly it’s not cool to be ignorant anymore. It wasn’t cool in the 80s – trends swing every ten to twenty years, so this is an achievable goal.
Problem #4: Voting is all most people do.
My biggest pet peeve about voting is that it gives people the illusion their work as a citizen is done when they step out of the booth. Most people seem to agree there are no good candidates anymore – voting is about choosing the lesser evil. Yet they shrug and vote, and think, “Oh, well – I did all I could.”
Well, no, you didn’t. Stop patting yourself on the back and think. Where’s the real power? When an election chooses between two deeply corrupt candidates, who decides what the winner will do in office? Lobbyists and campaign financiers. Lobbyists know it’s not important who wins. What matters is: who’s running the winner in office?
It could be us, if people would stop being apathetic long enough to get serious about grassroots lobbying. And protests. And using the democracy of the internet to point out what’s wrong with the democracy of government. We actually do have some power. It’s just not where you were told to look. Sometimes you have to stop trusting authority figures and actually think for yourself.
Whatever you think of voting in general, it is the beginning of a citizen’s empowerment, not the end. If voting isn’t cutting it anymore, don’t just dutifully keep voting (or rebelliously stop voting) and say, “Oh, well, nothing I can do.” Find something you can do. Influence a few hearts and minds. Speak up for your beliefs. Change the culture, and the government must follow.