On Not Voting

On Not Voting
Illustration:Jim Cooke (GMG)

On Tuesday, I wrote a piece that dissected a New York magazine report in which a dozen people under 30 explained why they’re not voting. It’s safe to say that the blog garnered an intense reaction.

By my rough estimate, at least 700 of the 1,000-plus comments on my post were varying iterations of “Actually, those reasons are very easy to argue with,” or “Oh my God, these lazy, entitled millennials are going to doom us all.” (I know this because I read them all, in part because I’m a garbage-loving psycho, but also because I was genuinely curious.) Among the remaining 300-odd comments were some fantastically passionate and sound responses. People said that such inaction had led to the election of Donald Trump; that the concerns of young non-voters were paltry compared to disenfranchised voting populations; that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate; and that voting is a civic responsibility that only the lazy would shirk.

After the piece went up, I had quite a few people I know personally reach out to discuss it in more detail. One of my former editors made an excellent point, one I’m going to quote a portion from because I wholeheartedly believe and agree with it:

On a practical level, no party is ever going to try to appeal to a group until it votes. There’s a reason pols court old people, and it’s because they vote heavily no matter what.

In case it wasn’t clear before: I think you should vote! As a Native American born and raised in the South, the preciousness of voting rights for historically disenfranchised groups is not lost on me. I was lucky enough to have grandparents who shielded their children and grandchildren from the horrors inflicted upon them by the federal and state governments, but I recognize that many people of color in America didn’t have that privilege. When set against the communities still experiencing this—and even on their own—most of the reasons provided in the New York interviews were easy to counter, especially one where the person didn’t know how to use a damn post office. That’s obviously not the same thing as being subjected to racist voter suppression, and I shouldn’t have co-signed some of the examples without further explanation.

But I also saw ahistorical diatribes populating the discussion. As I laid out in a comment, voter apathy is cyclical and, historically, part and parcel of American politics. It is not fresh to this decade or specific to my generation or any other. According to Fair Vote, at least 38 percent of the American adult population has stayed at home during the presidential election for the past four decades, while at least 58 percent of voters stayed home for every midterm election during that same time period. The end result is a steady injection of aging non-voters into the populace—57 percent of 2016’s non-voters were between the ages of 30 and 64, though it is worth pointing out that middle-aged voters turn out at a clip about 14 points higher than voters under the age of 29.

Every generation has specific reasons for becoming disillusioned. They’re rooted in the design of the American system, not in some sense of entitlement that stems from everyone getting a trophy when they were five. State-funded eugenic sterilization programs, Jim Crow laws, and the lies behind Vietnam and Watergate all played their parts; more recently, the easy marks have been the Iraq War, inaction after the housing crisis, and GOP leaders calling Obama everything but the n-word for eight years before systematically undoing nearly all his good actions within two years with Donald fucking Trump at the helm.

Sometimes people are just lazy or entitled or dumb, and there’s nothing that can be done to counteract that. And it would be far more comforting to believe that the only thing holding people back was laziness, because laziness can be addressed simply—as Australia, which has compulsory voting, has shown. But the issue of non-voters cannot merely be one of individual failings. It is also one of structural failings endemic to America that pile up and lead to 88 percent of Americans citing a distrust in Congress, with 68 percent saying the same of the presidency. Forty percent of eligible people didn’t vote in 2016. Some of them surely didn’t because they were targets of voter suppression, but many of them had other reasons, and laziness and stupidity can’t account for all of them.

Changing these numbers takes time, understanding, and, if you want it to last, direct action. It means restructuring and reframing how government and politics operate in a way that encourages participation instead of actively trying to whittle down voting bases, gerrymandering districts, and inflaming the limited remaining voting bases to the point of indignation just to satiate a desire for power. America, at every level, strives to discourage people from voting. Which makes more sense: to attack people who give in to that discouragement, or to attack the powerful forces behind it?

As I pointed out in my blog, many of the reasons for sitting out presented by the dozen young people interviewed by New York were suboptimal. Just as there’s no perfect candidate, there is no perfect voter or non-voter. But as unrealistic as it might seem to wait for politicians and government officials to adhere to the preferences of young voters before those voters have demonstrated their power as a voting bloc, it is even more unrealistic to believe that people will suddenly become politically active without any incentives or external motivation, especially given how many impediments exist in the dozens of inane state-specific registration models across the U.S. For every politician like Stacey Abrams or group like the Tennessee Black Voter Project that puts the physical and mental work into rounding up non-voters by admitting the state of living in this nation is suboptimal for the majority of citizens, there exists 10 establishment entities that espouse some form of “America is already great” and expect to claim seats of power by being Not Trump.

As the response to my post helped prove, we already have a strong social stigma against not voting, but positioning the act of voting as a moral imperative has failed as a remedy to our turnout problem. That’s why I find it unfortunate that a sizable percentage of voters within and outside the Splinter commentariat would turn around and use disenfranchised citizens of color, non-violent felons, and the nation’s poor and homeless population as a cudgel against these non-voters. Hell, some folks went as far as to cite the voter suppression efforts happening to Native Americans as example of my white privilege, despite the facts that 1) I am not white and 2) I have written about Nativespecific issue numerous times since joining Splinter three weeks ago.

What these browbeaters don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that they are in the same boat as the non-voters, not on opposite sides of a chasm where one has to scream to be heard. What keeps a disaffected recent poli sci major from voting isn’t the same as what keeps a poor person who doesn’t have an ID card and thus can’t register—and one situation is absolutely more serious than the other—but the ultimate, underlying causes of both are institutional failures rather than personal ones, and the end result is a feedback loop of shitty government and low turnout.

I can wholly empathize with the disaffection expressed by the people New York spoke to. Voting is no assurance of relief or direct results—not in America, at least—and the idea that choosing the lesser of two evils is better than not choosing at all has been so engrained in our popular media and pro-voting culture that people seem to have little clue on how to talk to, or about, non-voters in any way other than condemnation and condescension.

The turnout next Tuesday, and the Tuesday two years from now, and two years from then, will very possibly be up, but it’s not going to be at 100 or even 70 percent. America should do better when it comes to voting—and I desperately want our voter participation numbers to rise—but empathizing with non-voters’ disenchantment is a far cry from enabling them. Shame isn’t enough to get every non-voter to the polls. If voting Americans want to change their minds, they need a new tactic.

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