As the 2016 presidential election season starts to kick into high gear, I’m reminded of a particularly humorous incident during the last presidential cycle. In October 2012, students at my alma mater set up a voter registration table outside our student union building for the upcoming election. One student volunteer in a ROTC uniform called out to me asking if I had registered to vote. I told him I had done early voting, casting a protest vote for Jill Stein. I told him my vote was meaningless in a blue state and the election was a bourgeois fraud. I must have struck a nerve with the kid, as he began arguing with me over the importance of voting. I reiterated a point I’ve always made to folks that voting in local municipalities and regional elections is important, especially when it comes to supporting referendums but the federal election system, particularly with regards to selecting the President is completely out of our hands. The redneck actually felt insulted by this, like I had shit on his granddaddy’s grave. This episode demonstrated a bunch of misconceptions that people have regarding voting in Federal elections. Its not just fratty soldier types but also co-workers, friends, and flirts at the bar that view abstention as an affront to their very existence. Frankly, folks should try to learn some fundamental reasons as to why people don’t vote. Here’s some voting myths that need to be utterly smashed:
1. Voting is the most important part of the political process
Especially in the United States, policy wonks tout this about like its common knowledge. In doing so, they’re rejecting every other aspect of political participation and essentially narrowing the possibilities of what actually constitutes politics. Organizing, building political coalitions, lobbying, community empowerment, conscious raising, striking, sabotage, civil disobedience, and armed struggle are all various ways to practice politics. All of them, including voting, are necessary to certain degrees in order to accomplish political goals. Putting any of these methods on a pedestal and saying this is the one everyone truly needs to care about delegitimizes the potential power of other forms of political expression. Politics work best when you use everything in the toolbox.
2. Voting is the most effective way for the public to influence the political establishment
Like the previous myth, this one essentializes voting as the only meaningful way to exercise political power. In fact, voting is the least effective way to influence the political elite. Even letter writing is more effective since it directly addresses concerns to the representative. The best methods to influence politicians have always come from outside the traditional political process. Mass social movements and general strikes do more to propel change than any ballot since they make use of labor power’s revolutionary potential. In periods of upheaval, political leaders are forced into supporting progressive legislation out of fear that the guillotines might make an appearance if they fail to do so. Six police officers were arrested and charged for the murder of Freddie Gray not because anybody voted. The only reason the nation even heard about the case was that a handful of angry youth donned black bloc gear, took to the streets and burned shit to the ground. Likewise, the NYPD implemented a virtual work stoppage only after two of their own were gunned down in a squad car. The latter case was pretty extreme and circumstantially unjustified but the former demonstrates a profound truth about civil resistance: riots work.
3. Voting is a basic human right
This differs from the statement that voting should be a human right. If we examine voting trends in the US, we realize this isn’t true at all. Last year, a horde of Republicans successfully passed voter ID laws in their states restricting access to the ballot box based on immigration status and property ownership. These laws disproportionately affect poor people of color. Also, most states enforce harsh incarceration laws that strip the right to vote from anyone who has been convicted of a felony. The fact that we even have to register in order to be eligible to vote is completely absurd. We receive a social security number as soon as we’re born but we need to opt-in to the voting system? Combine this with difficult access to polling places, Kafkaesque citizenship qualifications, and the realization that there’s only a short window of time to cast your ballot on a workday then voting seems more like a privilege than a right. The rights model in general presents a deep flaw within liberal republics. Rights can only be granted by the state and the list the state gave us seems pretty limited; the whole idea that they’re natural is a complete myth. To overcome this, we should just demand infinite rights. Let everyone vote without any restrictions!
4. Voting is democratic
Remember, the Founding Fathers abhorred democracy. They specifically designed the federal election system not to be democratic. Despite all the hoopla over civic participation, the President isn’t even popularly elected. The Electoral College consists of a finite number of electors (mystery suit-wearing G-men) chosen based on the number of votes from a given state determined by its population. Yet, each state’s electoral process is based on a winner-take-all system so even if a state is split 51%/49% the winner receives all electoral votes. This system completely rejects the popular will of the country. The Electoral College is also the reason why only two political parties maintain dominance over the electoral process. Nevermind that presidential debates are controlled by a bipartisan commission, the winner-take-all set up means that third parties will never be able to gather enough support to compete. Between the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision and the legal bureaucracy set up to bar non-millionaires from running, its clear that the national election system is not meant to serve the interests of the people. In fact, a Princeton study last year concludes that mass wealth inequality, revolving door lobbying, and campaign fundraising transformed the electoral process into an oligarchy.
5. People died for your right to vote
This myth is extremely disingenuous and downright insulting to people who gave their lives to create a freer society. Were activists killed during the Mississippi Freedom Summer voting drive? Yes. Did protestors die during the Selma march for the Voting Rights Act? Yes. But to suggest that securing voting rights was the only reason these people put their lives on the line obscures the larger goals of the Civil Rights Movement as well as divorces it from the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. We could very well make the claim that people died for our right to strike and form a union or people died to make sure we never go to war again, yet as activists in the current era, we’ve pretty much dishonored those memories. Again, people make this statement to guilt trip abstainers and further emphasize the essentialism of voting as the only means to affect political change.
6. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain
George Carlin already has a great response to this statement. Political Science professors usually like to tout this claim, virtually shutting down debate in the classroom. This cliché assumes that abstainers don’t vote out of apathy or ignorance rather than from legitimate political or moral concerns. If anything, it shows a lack of imagination concerning the scope of political action people could actually take. Its also fucking arrogant. Quite the contrary, as Carlin suggests, if you actively support and elect a war criminal, then you’re responsible for all the horrible atrocities that person commits. Or maybe its that they believe so much in this claim that in order to criticize Obama’s drone policy they need to vote for him. We need to flip this whole concept on its head. If you don’t riot, you have no right to complain.
7. Every vote counts
As I pointed out above, the structural set up of the electoral system utterly prevents meaningful participation. Republicans and Democrats divvied up the country into red states, blue states, and a handful of battleground swing states where the election is actually decided. In the winner-take-all system, the loser’s votes become void. A Republican vote in New York will never have an impact in the general election. And with the argument that voters in swing states matter? Well, the majority of Americans don’t live in swing states. Therefore, the majority of votes don’t matter. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have significantly more influence over the outcome of the election cycle than voters in any other state just because they host early primaries. By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, half of the candidates dropped out and most Americans never had a chance to choose. Circling back to that Princeton Study, the researchers found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” All votes matter, but some votes matter more than others.
8. Voting Third Party helps increase their chances of winning
Third parties will never significantly compete in a federal election without institutional support. Under the current set up, voters would be lucky to have even heard of alternative third parties. The Libertarian, Green, and Constitution Parties are the three most active and established third parties in the United States. However, the Commission on Presidential Debates excludes third party candidates from nationally televised debates. Republican and Democratic delegates jointly manage the CPD along with the Federal Election Commission and the major media news outlets. Six conglomerates control every major media project. Each mainstream news channel pushes a particular agenda, warping viewers’ opinions and purposefully excluding coverage of third party campaigns. With no media exposure, most of the country remains ignorant to the existence of third parties. Though, third party influence is strong in major metropolitan areas. Third parties can compete easier on a local level and can even win seats in state assemblies. Yet, without strong media support and financial backing, third parties will never be able to take on the two party establishment on the national level. My vote for the Green Party will never impact the general election.
9. Voting is your patriotic duty.
In a last ditch effort to convince you to vote, these ROTC fucks question your loyalty to America. Again, if we’re going to attach civic participation to voting, then the same level of enthusiasm and celebration needs to be attached with other forms of politics. Is it our same patriotic duty to call a general strike or firebomb fossil fuel plants spewing greenhouse gas emissions? This claim reaffirms that voting is part of the American civic religion. Wave the flag, recite the Pledge, and kill ragheads for Jesus. Equating voting with patriotism just proves how much the ritual has become a tool for the ruling class. Once a year, voters exercise their most cherished right only to meld back into passive conformity for 364 days. And that’s just the most active voters. Most of them only vote for President. So, pretty much once every four years, Americans pretend that they’re participating in democracy or freedom or justice or some other vague hollow concept as they pull a lever selecting one of two wealthy sociopaths to wreak havoc over the world and keep oppressed masses under their thumb. Cops love using this line on protestors, which says a lot right there. Attaching patriotic virtue to voting is really just a coded way of saying “Stop demonstrating, shut up, and get in line.” Patriotism is the cudgel used by the warrior class on the rest of the citizenry. Its the societal institutionalization of frat culture. Its not even like soldiers, cops, and other state thugs really care about your rights, they just want you to support the empire. The ROTC fuck that argues for your right to vote is the same meathead who will shoot you in the head if you exercise your right to burn an American flag in front of his face.
10. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just vote.
This myth speaks profound truths about what these gung-ho election volunteers actually want. The douchebag ROTC kid made this his main argument. First of all, even from a voting standpoint it definitely matters who you vote for. Did he actually think Obama voters would accept a Mitt Romney presidency without objection? The motherfucker doesn’t even believe mass incarceration exists. He openly talked shit on half of the population. Of all the horrible policies enforced by Obama, a Romney presidency would certainly have been worse. Yet, the fact that people make this claim so often reflects a deeper psychological acceptance that the two major political parties are not too different in general policy. To say this really strikes at the core of why the political elite spend billions of dollars to convince common folk to participate in this ritual every four years.
Voting legitimizes the political system. By voting at all, no matter if you pull a lever or write-in ‘Mickey Mouse,’ demonstrates tacit approval with the general processes and technocracy of the deep state. Imagine if a critical mass of voters abstained from the 2016 election. It would scare the shit out of the political class for it shows that a majority of Americans refuse to recognize the authority of the government. This is the essential point volunteers make at these voter drives. We don’t care what you do in that voting booth, we just need you to do it in order it to demonstrate your faith in the system. The real reason they hate abstainers so much is that we represent a negation of that system. When electioneers see non-voters establish protest camps in parks, demonstrate against police brutality, and organize mass strikes, it presents an existential threat to their authority. These same voter drive politicos say shit like “No matter who is elected, we have a responsibility to respect the Head of State,” which is borderline fascist. If we truly want to politicize the American populace, we need to preach the mantra that no matter who is elected, we have a responsibility to hold their feet to the fire.