“Elizabeth, who are you voting for, Bernie or Hillary?”
I’m asked this question several times per week, and only imagine the frequency will intensify leading up to the November presidential election. No matter how many times I answer this question, I’m almost always met with the same response: shock, disdain, anger.
The answer is neither. I’m not voting for anyone in the 2016 election.
I care deeply about politics, and have a long-standing interest in the ins and outs of political operations in the United States. I consider myself to be politically savvy. Further, I’m an ardent feminist, and in general my views skew pretty far to the left (yes, even further left than Bernie Sanders). I’m opinionated, I’m often up in arms, and I always have something to say about social issues.
All of these reasons have led to my ultimate decision to abstain from voting. And not just for this election, but for the past presidential and other elections. I plan to continue not to vote.
I’m not lazy, I’m not apathetic. I am well aware of how to register and the location of my local voting precinct. I just choose not to vote.
I know very well that this is an unpopular opinion. I know that at this point, some readers will already be formulating an angry email to send my way, telling me that I’m what’s wrong with America/ young people today/ I better not complain about politics since I don’t vote.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through being open about not voting, it’s that people in the U.S. equate voter abstention with a sort of tyranny. It is an anti-patriotism barely tolerated by the left or the right. I’ve been cussed out on Facebook, yelled at in my workplace, been called lazy, un-American, and been told I’m ungrateful for my freedoms.
Unlike some other countries around the world, in the U.S., voting is not compulsory. We can choose to vote if we want to, and for any reason we want to. The people we vote for don’t even have to be good politicians, much less decent human beings (ahem Donald Trump).
But this hardly matters. All that matters is that people vote. I’ve had Democrat friends tell me numerous times they’d rather I vote for a Republican than not vote at all. I find this idea confusing and a bit disturbing. Why is the act of voting itself more important than the candidates we support? Shouldn’t whom we vote for be the most important thing about voting? Isn’t that all that truly matters?
More often than not, I hear impassioned voters complaining about the candidates for whom they plan to vote. They will tell me, “Well I hate so much about Hillary, but I think she’s the most likely Democrat to win, so for pragmatic reasons, I’m just going to vote for her.” Or “Yes, of course Ted Cruz has been a fuck-up but he could be a good president.” Then there’s the lesser of two evils reasoning: “I have a major problem with the Democratic candidate, I don’t really like them. But if it’s between the Democrat or the Republican, who I hate even more, I have to choose the Democrat.”
We’ve all heard this lesser-of-two-evils argument: In the U.S. we have only two viable political parties, and many people will agree that both the Democratic and the Republican parties have agendas that are unsavory and that American politics are a mess. But our culture tells us we must choose one of these two (remember the famous voting campaign “Vote or die”?), so voters will opt for the candidate that seems the least awful. As if “not as bad as someone really bad” is a person who deserves our endorsement.
If I don’t like a candidate and don’t stand behind their policies, I’m not going to vote for them, even if that means I’m not voting for anyone. We don’t have to support someone we don’t believe in, and we shouldn’t feel that opting out of a process we don’t believe in risks our status as a contributing member of society.
When I have these conversations with folks, it always boils down to the simple fact that, in the U.S., we’ve come to see voting as a good in and of itself. Voting is considered the unequivocal “right thing,” regardless of whom you vote for, regardless of whether you like them, regardless of whether you even really want to vote.
For a lot of people, I frankly think that voting is a bit of a cop-out. It’s an errand many of us can easily run every few years, get a red sticker, and feel good about ourselves for having done our part, that our duty to our community is fulfilled. I have come to expect more of that from myself, and from everyone else.
I made the decision for myself to challenge this idea that voting is good in and of itself, and try to push myself to ask what I can do to participate in the betterment of our society that feels sincere and stays in keeping with my values. And I think, if there weren’t such a terrible stigma surrounding voter abstention, everyone would find out that a lot of people they know feel the same way that I do, and for very legitimate reasons.
If we, as a culture, could open our minds to the idea that it’s OK to say no to voting if none of the candidates will work for us, we could start having a much more thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately more helpful conversation about politics.
So no, I’m not apathetic. I just refuse to trade my beliefs for a sticker that says “I Voted.”