The Russell Brand conundrum: Is choosing not to vote ever okay?

Russell Brand wants a revolution but won't for vote for it -- is he right?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 25, 2013 11:33PM (UTC)
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Russell Brand (Reuters/Toby Melville)

Early on in the middle of his smart, feisty call to revolution earlier this week – during an interview that has provoked swoons of approval across the world --  Russell Brand made a candid admission to interviewer Jeremy Paxman. "Yeah, no," he said. "I don't vote."

My reaction when he said that was the same it always is when someone says they don't vote -- a strangled gasping horror that eventually downgrades to mere saddened disappointment.


I take my voting seriously. I drag my daughters with me to the polls, where each year I give them my traditional lecture on how in just the last century, women and minorities had to fight for the right to cast a ballot, about how right now in our country there are people trying to suppress individuals from voting, that's how important and radical the act is. People come from miles away and stand on line for hours to vote. People labor together to create makeshift voting plans in the wake of hurricanes. How can someone not vote? Not voting, in my mind, is like overusing emojis or baking cookies with margarine or not knowing the difference between "you're" and "your." It's unforgivable.

Yet I have friends who don't do it. Friends who are smart and opinionated and care about things. And as Brand explained to Paxman, there are those who say that not voting is definitely not the same as not caring. "I am not voting out of apathy," Brand says. "I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached a fever pitch, where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, and voting for it is tacit complicity with that system." As a weary, exhausted liberal, I understand that frustration. I want to believe, as my friend Sally says, that "If I didn't vote the bastards would win outright and I can't let that happen." But I understand why Brand would respond to Paxman's claim that "That's how democracy works" with a terse, "Well, I don't think it's working very well." (Remember when the guy who promised healthcare reform won the presidential election? Because I do!)

I also certainly have experienced many "Hold your nose and vote" moments in the many years that have passed since I turned 18 -- that impotent sense of my choices being reduced to what "South Park" once boiled down to the "Giant Douche or the Turd Sandwich," because "They're the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics." I have voted for lesser evils and I have voted within party lines when I was less than thrilled with the options. Did I feel a swelling civic pride in those moments, a sense that I was truly making a difference in the world? Did I even care that much about the outcomes? Not every time, not really. Yet when I realized that the notion of having the ability to vote and not exercising it was so alien, so appalling to me, I wanted to understand what would disincline someone. As my friends say, "I vote because I can. It's corny and reductionist but true," and "I think if it as an important and valued duty we all have."


When I asked Martin, a California lawyer, why he doesn't vote, he told me, "I don't think the system works. Each individual has to ask, 'How much is the society is serving me?' You can fight battles, but I ask myself, 'In my day, where is my time going to? Where is my time best utilized?' Voting is an easy task, but I feel that me voting doesn’t further the things I believe in. And I get offended by people who think they're doing their part solely by voting." And my colleague Stella, a broadcast journalist, says that while she's an "adamant" voter, her husband is anything but. "To our children, I've made the case that you can't change a system in which you're not engaged," she says. "He's argued that we've only had the popular vote since Andrew Jackson, and the politics in D.C. are about as far removed from the reality of the voting booth as they could be."

My college friend Claire, meanwhile, is a nonvoter who makes occasional exceptions. She voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, and recently voted for Cory Booker. She explains, "I understand and fully believe that the right to vote in this country is a sacred right and a sacred responsibility. But I take that responsibility so seriously that I refuse to vote for somebody just because they're a member of a particular party or they're the lesser of two evils. I'll only do it if I really believe in the person." And my neighbor Nicole feels similarly. "I vote only sometimes," she says. "I am not proud of that, but sometimes I don't like either of my choices. Other times, usually, in the smaller, local elections, I am not knowledgeable about either candidate and feel it would be stupid to just vote according to my party. I don't like to vote when I don't know the issues or candidates well."

Yet as my friend Floyd says, "I'd rather vote for someone marginally closer to what I believe than not vote and let the people who actively want to do harm to the poor and powerless win." I want to respect those who conscientiously opt out, but ultimately, that's where I land too. It's a wildly imperfect system, one that I admit to not always having faith in myself. But even when I'm not fully on board with the candidate, I always believe in the act itself, in doing something that so many people all over the world, so many women in particular, cannot. It's not the revolution that Russell Brand speaks of, but it's a gesture that never fails to move me. That pulling of a lever. That ticking of a box. That hard-won right.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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