Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The limitations of voting

As all of the conversations around the water cooler and on Facebook indicate, we are in the thick of the political frenzy season. I'm already feeling political fatigue and am ready for this whole election thing to be done with. So just for the heck of it, here's a post that has the potential to annoy everybody on all sides.

The campaign process wades through long months of complex debate on innumerable topics and issues but then drills down to one ultimate question: How will you vote? I think one of the limitations of the American two-party political system is that it necessarily forces us to make imperfect voting decisions as if we are giving full endorsement to one or another position. There is no way to vote with reservations, to say, "I want to vote for candidate A's health care policy but candidate B's foreign policy" or "I'm only voting for this part of the candidate's platform but not that part." Every party and every candidate is a mixed bag, and I wish we could offer partial votes.

This election cycle, I'm hearing more people say that there's much they agree with and disagree with on both candidates, and neither one fully encapsulates the "ideal" candidate or ticket. I was interested to discover in 2004 that respected Christian historian Mark Noll had publicly stated that for several elections he could not bring himself to fully support either major candidate, so he has chosen not to vote.

A new book just came out a few months ago called Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis, which argues in favor of Noll's position. It argues that not voting could and should be a legitimate option for Christians. I've not read all the way through the book yet, but it has provided a number of very interesting perspectives that seem to resonate with the many Christians who feel that they can't fully support either ticket.

Contributors suggest that voting reinforces the idolatry of the nation-state, and they discuss how voting has been co-opted by the party system, how voting is necessarily an overly simplistic response to very complicated issues, and how historically some of the most significant social changes have happened outside of the actual voting process. For example, the civil rights movement was accomplished in many ways by people who were shut out of the traditional voting process. Social change can and does happen apart from voting; voting is one avenue of public engagement, but certainly not the only one.

One interesting observation is that Christians might actually wield more influence prior to voting than afterward - once your vote is cast, you can be taken for granted. So to withhold your vote might actually be an act not merely of protest but of active political engagement. The contributors argue against an easy checking out of the system and say that if you don't vote, you actually need to be more involved in the political process in different, alternative ways.

If a voter has studied all the issues and candidates and still could not support a candidate, it could be legitimate to not vote as an act of protest. If we cannot vote with a clear conscience, then we should not vote. If the system is broken, then it may be an act of futility to participate in the system. Our electoral process is a tremendously flawed, imperfect system that unfortunately happens to be better than any other alternatives. Of course, this is not to say that we should abandon government. Those who are gifted with political savvy and governmental access can work for reform; others of us not so called may well sit out.

Some have argued that voting is a right, a privilege, an obligation and a duty for us as American citizens. They say that we are derelict in our responsibility if we do not vote. But I am quite skeptical of language about the "duty" or "obligation" to vote. During the primaries, one of my colleagues exhorted everybody to vote. I responded that the right to vote also means the right not to vote. I think using the language of "duty" or "obligation" to vote might actually weaken the principle of participatory democracy. If we are not free to NOT vote, we are not truly free to vote.

Anyway, I'm not necessarily convinced by all of this book's arguments, but I thought it raised a number of good points and it gives voice to a lot of the ambivalence and conflictedness that I'm sensing this year. I haven't decided yet how I will vote, or even if I will vote. But these are my thoughts at this point of the season.

Okay, I've said my piece. Open fire . . .


Ally said...

I think the important thing if you find you cannot vote for either candidate, is to still go and vote for everything else. My highschool government professor was very clear on this - his point was that without going and voting on the other issues and other positions, no one would ever know if you were just too lazy to go vote. But that if there was enough of a disconnect between say 50,000 people voting in a given area -but only 40,000 of them voting for a presidential candidate, then that would say something to both parties. For that matter - if you went and got a ballot and chose not to vote on any of the races - would it still count you as having "voted"? There really should be a choice for "I abstain but I'm here to make it clear I'm abstaining but not just choosing not to vote."

chris wignall said...

(Though you may not know it Canada is also in an election campaign these days; with a lot less drama and coverage)
I understand the view Al is sharing here but I think he neglects a valuable avenue for political influence outside of voting. Our candidates and their representatives are currently "all ears" for feedback from the public as they seek to win our affections and approval. Now is the time to contact them with well reasoned and respectful questions and commentary that reflect our values and interests. They will never be more attentive than in election season.
In Canada we recently saw the governing party (we have several national parties, not just two) offer apologies for callous attack ads and relent on a threat to not participate in televised debates if the leader of one of the smaller parties was included.
I've heard it said that if you don't vote you shouldn't complain; I would recalibrate that to say if you don't communicate your views to those seeking to represent you, don't complain. Voting may be far less influential than a few deliberate and civil phone calls and emails.