But what if the ballot is just one more government form to be filled out and filed. What if the process itself is nothing more than a ritual designed to give you a feeling of control over your life, and elections are what they give you instead of real change? What if the most politically powerful act you can perform is to say ‘no’ by tearing the ballot in half.
I think you should abstain from voting in the upcoming election. I don’t say this because I’m apathetic. Quite the contrary. I care deeply about the direction in which North America and the world is heading, and it scares the hell out of me. I’m not apolitical. I’ve been politically active in a variety of causes and grassroots movements since I was 15 years old.
I think you should abstain from voting for reasons that range from the practical to the political and, finally, to the moral….which is by far the most important reason for non-voting from my perspective.
I want to start, however, by clarifying the sort of voting I oppose. There are many ways you can vote…you can elect a Kiwanas Club president or a prom queen, you can vote on referendums, you can vote with your money when you buy or boycott the products of a corporation, you can vote with your feet when you emigrate. That’s not what I’m addressing tonight.
Tonight I’m addressing the specific act of voting that involves giving your personal sanction – usually by pulling a lever or marking a ballot. I’m talking about giving your personal sanction to a candidate in order to assist that candidate into a position of power over the lives of others – a position like senator or president.
And I want to acknowledge a point of agreement between me and everyone who tells you that “getting out your vote” is a big deal. I think it is a big deal too. Not because I believe an individual vote will influence the outcome – I honestly don’t… but it is a big deal because one of the most important things you have is your consent.
Politically speaking, I believe your consent and the right to withhold it is the most important thing that an individual can possess. Quite apart from the voting issue, as a larger statement, your consent is the most politically powerful thing you own. Civil society is organized around recognizing how powerful your consent is. Whether or not you have said “yes” defines the difference between sex and rape. In terms of labor, it is the difference between employment and slavery. In everyday exchanges, it is the difference between a gift and theft. And, so, I agree that the act of consenting to the political process, saying “yes” to a candidate is important. So important that it should not be done. The most important question surrounding the presidential election in November is not who you vote for but whether you choose to vote at all.
I have a short period of time tonight and I won’t even attempt to give you a comprehensive sense of the many arguments against voting or the rich history of non-voting which goes back centuries. What I will do instead is give you a sampling of three types of non-voting arguments that are commonly used: the practical, the political and the moral. I’ll offer an overview of the main reason I don’t vote and, then, conclude by giving you a sense of alternative ways to change society.
Along the way, in order to break any possible monotony, I’ll pause to cast doubt on some of the most common pro-voting arguments you’ve probably heard…just so you don’t hear them with an entirely uncritical ear in the future.
First let’s deal with a practical reason why you shouldn’t vote.
Many (if not most) people vote with the practical goal of influencing an election’s outcome. As with any practical matter, you should ask yourself “What is the likelihood of success?” and, then, run a cost-benefit analysis on the venture.
For those who vote in the hope, in of casting a deciding vote on a presidential candidate, the first reality to be faced is that you are about as likely to win the lottery as to cast a deciding vote and far more likely to die in an accident on your way to the voting booth. A research paper published last year in the journal rationality and society estimated your chances of casting a deciding vote at 1 in 10 million. I don’t stand by the accuracy of that figure: it would certainly depend on highly variable factors like how close the race was and the voter turnout. But you get the idea. A deciding vote is an astronomically improbable thing.
Instead you are faced with the reality of casting a vote that may or may not influence an election in some very small way. This is the reality on which you should run a cost-benefit analysis in order to decide whether voting is a rational use of your time.
Among the costs to be considered is the time in hours that you spend deciding between candidates in the November election. Let’s be extremely conservative and say you invest 30 hours watching TV debates, reading literature and such. Measured at $10 an hour that’s a $300 investment. Measured by lost opportunities, that’s 30 hours you don’t spend with your family, in studying, or doing charity work; in short, that’s 30 hours you’ve taken from whatever else you value. Then there are the other costs like the time you take off work to vote, the cost of transportation, the risk of an accident on the way….
Against such costs, the benefit is weighed: and, again that benefit is the possibility of exerting an extremely small influence on an election. In weighing whether this benefit or goal is attainable, there are many more considerations than the ones I’ve just mentioned. For example, you should consider whether your vote will be accurately and honestly counted; that is, will the results will be tampering with…perhaps through rigged voting machines other forms of dishonesty in counting such as the discarding of ballots with hanging chads.
I happen to think that voting is a rigged system from beginning to end for a lot of reasons. A large reason is that elections and fierce politicking attract political activists. Anyone who has ever had a close association with a diehard political activist knows that they do almost whatever is necessary to have their agenda succeed, to have their view of what ‘the good society’ prevail. To them it is a moral imperative and I have no doubt that many activists – for example zealots who are against abortion or for same sex marriages – would consider almost a duty to gerrymander a voting process so that the proper side or the right candidate won. Throw in the fact that there are huge financial profits to be made on the winning side and you have a perfect breeding ground for corruption…even by well meaning people.
But that’s just the tip of the corruption. Before candidates are even chosen, the process has been rigged through voting districts that have been carefully defined and re-defined in order to maximize the chances of a specific party winning. It has been rigged through the backroom deals and party machinery that nominate candidates. There is a quote I like for its sheer perversity. The 19th century New York politician named Boss Tweed, who is sometimes held up as the paradigm of a corrupt politician, once said, “I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.” That’s a man who understood politics.
Another vector of corruption should be considered when you evaluate whether your vote can possibly influence society in the manner you wish. And that whether the candidate you support, if elected, will keep his or her campaign promises…the promises for which you voted. Remember: George Bush first ran as a “compassionate conservative” who would express a kinder, humbler foreign policy. Those who voted for the 1st–term-Bush because of that promise were defrauded. But they provide a cautionary tale. Electoral politics asks you to abandon the insight offered by the 19th century classical liberal Lord Acton who said, “power corrupts”; electoral politics asks you to amend the insight to read “power corrupts – except for candidates I support and like?” It is not clear to me why someone you like is less vulnerable to power than anyone else…but that seems to be the reasoning.
I could go on and on about corruption. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned the specifics of this particular election. For example, the Democratic Party – the supposed voice of the underdog and common man – choosing to have hundreds of super delegates who are accountable to no one. That’s almost a recipe for influence peddling and election rigging. But I’ll stop here because cost-benefit analysis and complaints about corruption are not my main arguments against voting. I’ll conclude this section simply stating: given the cost of voting and the obstacles blocking even the small possibility of your vote making an impact, it is reasonable to eschew voting on the grounds that it is a bad investment of your scarce resources, like time.
Of course, the response from media and politicians is still to cast aspersions on the non-voter in the same manner that a corporation might badmouth people for not buying its shoddy products.
And here I want to pause, as I promised to do earlier on, in order to look at a common pro-voting argument that makes no sense to me. And, by the way, it would make no sense even if I believed in voting.
This particular argument derides non-voters – as most of the arguments do – but it also is vaguely threatening. It is: “if you don’t care enough to vote, then you have no right to criticize the outcome.” In other words, if you don’t vote, you lose your voice – or at least you lose the right to voice specific criticism of the government that emerges.
I think the opposite is true. Those who vote, those who play the election game, have implicitly agreed to the rules and they are the ones who have no right to complain about an outcome they don’t like. It is non-voters who say “no” to the game and reject the rules who have a moral right to complain about outcomes.
Imagine a comparable situation: you are urged to play Russian roulette – a form in which a 2nd person controls the gun. You say “hell, yes!” At that point, with the act of saying “yes”, you have the lost moral right to complain about whatever happens when the trigger is pulled. Why? Because you agreed to the rules, you said “yes” to the rules. If you say “no” at the outset, however, then when the gun is fired, you have a right to scream bloody murder. And, indeed, if you were killed it would be murder rather than a tragic accident that occurred while playing a dangerous game. That’s how important your “yes” or “no” are. They are the difference between murder and an accident. So, rather than lose your voice by not voting, it is the act of saying “no” that gives you the moral right to complain your head off.
That’s common pro voting argument #1 that makes no sense to me.
So far I’ve given you just one of many practical reasons why people don’t vote. Another reason: a lot of people just don’t like any of the candidates. It is not a case of apathy but of discernment. Some of these discerning people will enter a voting gray zone by using a ballot to vote for “none of the above” or “no one.” After all, no one keeps his promises. No one respects your rights. No one deserves to hold a position of vast power over the lives of others.
Okay…I want to go on now to a sense of the political reasons why someone would choose not to vote.
I want to segue into that by considering another common pro-voting argument #2 that makes no sense to me. The argument: the right to vote is the lynchpin of a free society; it is what separates free North Americans from oppressed people elsewhere in the world. But if voting is the enemy of tyranny, then it stands to reason that tyrannical governments would outlaw it. But, as we all know, many dictatorships – including the former Soviet Union – make voting mandatory. Tyrants insist you vote and make non-voting illegal. Of course, there is often a very limited range of candidates on the ballot…but how does that differ in kind from the United States? This one fact alone – that dictatorships make voting mandatory — should make you question whether or not voting is the key to freedom.
It should also raise the corollary question: why do the tyrants want you to vote? Or expanding that question; why do all politicians want you to vote? They want it so much that their ads claim to not care if you vote for them or their opponents. You’ve all heard similar pro-religious ads from churches: this week, worship at the church of your choice. Sometimes it says, “place of your choice” because the ad doesn’t want to preclude synagogues and such. Pro-voting ads are similar. This election vote for the candidate of your choice! – and all politicians endorse that ad.
On the surface, it is counter-intuitive. Why would a right-wing Republican who considers liberals to be spawns of Satan tell people to vote for a Democrat if you wish…but just be sure to vote! Why wouldn’t the Republican say to the Democratic supporter –“for the love of God, stay home!”
To understand the politician’s desire for everyone to vote whatever his or her vote might be, you have to look deeper. An old joke says, “don’t vote, it only encourages them.” The underlying message of the joke is that you should be so disgusted and disillusioned with the political system that you will not sanction it through your participation. When you make a check mark or whatever you do with a ballot to mean, “yes”, you are consenting to the electoral process by virtue of participating in it. ALL candidates want you to vote because, first and foremost, politicians want you to sanction the process by which they acquire vast power, prestige and money. Without that sanction, their power and prestige – indeed, their very quest for it –has no legitimacy.
Let me ask you: why is George Bush the legitimate President of the United States instead of just an overweening thug playing with the lives and money of others? Why do acknowledge his power over your life? Immediately some people will respond, “I don’t acknowledge it. I hate the SOB.” That may be true but whatever you think of the man George W. Bush – even if you think he cheated his way into office — you respect the authority of “president” because you accept the institutional legitimacy of that position. You believe that anyone who wins enough votes has a right to occupy a position of such vast power over your life and the lives of others…a position of such authority that he can declare war on your behalf. The reason you believe in his authority is because you believe in the magic transfer of power from the people to the office of President that allegedly occurs during a vote.
And that’s why all politicians want you to vote… that’s why even the worst tyrant will conduct a massive election charade. Your act of voting legitimizes their office of power. It transforms their office from raw, unjustified force into a position of just authority. That’s why totalitarian nations pass laws to make voting compulsory: they cannot tolerate the person who says “no” – the man who says, “I don’t recognize your authority, I won’t play by rules that give your brute force the patina of legitimacy.”
Not voting because you refuse to legitimize the power of government is a time honored type of political protest.
There is a 16th century essay that had a revolutionary
impact on my thinking about how people legitimize government. It is entitled Discourse on Voluntary Servitude and written by the French jurist Etienne de la Boétie who opened with a question that haunts anyone who loves freedom and justice: namely, why do people obey unjust laws? La Boetie asked, “if a tyrant is one man and his subjects are many, why do they consent to their own enslavement?”
This question has been asked throughout political history. In the 18th century, Jean Rousseau’s pivotal work The Social Contract declared, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi asked why hundreds of millions of Indians allowed a few thousand British to subjugate them.
La Boétie wrote of France under the absolute monarchy of King Francis I. as such he did not directly address voting but looked at the psychological reasons why people obey and co-operate with an unjust government. Specifically he looked at the government side of it. How does a government, a ruler get you to consent to being ruled? La Boetie did not believe that the state ruled primarily through force. For one thing, there were many more slaves than agents of the state: if even a small percentage of people refused to obey a law, then that law became unenforceable. Moreover, most people obeyed without being forced to do so. For La Boétie, the collective obedience of society came from “a vice for which no term can be found vile enough, which nature herself disavows and our tongues refuse to name.” La Boétie called this monstrous vice “voluntary servitude.”
Why is voluntary servitude a vice, not a virtue? Because it contradicts nature, La Boétie explained. “Each man is given his own ability to reason, and virtue lies in cultivating his own innate independence. Even within the lower animals, there is a strong and natural urge to liberty. Animals who have tasted freedom resist entrapment, although it cost their lives.” La Boétie exclaimed,
“The very beasts, although made for the service of man, cannot become accustomed to control without protest. What evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?”
Man’s liberty required the death of tyranny. Advocating tyrannicide against a ruler who had broken the laws of god was nothing new in European theory but La Boétie had a different slant: the way to “kill” a tyrant was to destroy his power through non-violent resistance. In that manner, the people killed not a man but the tyranny itself. Liberty required only that people withdrawal their consent and co-operation.
To quote La Boetie again, “he who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body…; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own?”
La Boétie explored the major ways that a ruler or ruling elite – such as I believe the political class in America has become—he looked at the ways such elites engineer consent from the people. Because, after all, politicians and ruling classes don’t like to use brute force on a frequent or mass level against the general population. For a number of reasons… Violence bred martyrs, it increases popular resistance against authority, and it shows the ugly face of power too clearly. Moreover, a government that is reduced to using brute force to stay in power has already lost its legitimacy.
La Boetie identified three ways people are induced to obey unjust laws, unjust rulers: custom, control of information and bribery.
Custom involved the establishment of procedures and institutions that legitimized government. Generations were born “under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery.” People accepted their condition as natural and, so, they believed life had always been this way, life will always be this way. And, so, it took great effort to introduce a new vision. They accept the established system as an established fact – an inevitable fact like “death and taxes” — and anyone who speaks out against what is “the way of the world” is immediately castigated as apathetic or worse.
Which leads to the second way La Boetie believed government induced voluntary servitude: through the control of information. After most people had become accustomed to automatic obedience, the government’s main challenge was to reduce dissent. There were two basic means of doing so: by controlling the press; and, by monopolizing education.
How many times have you heard ‘get out the vote’ messages? Compare that to how many times you’ve heard ‘don’t vote’ arguments. And, yet, if you judge by the usual voter turnouts and by the people who don’t even bother to register, non-voting may be the majority opinion in society. An opinion that is rarely explored except to castigate it and try to shame those who hold it.
Limiting the discussion of voting means that you, the voter, focus dutifully on the choices presented: should candidate A assume a position of vast and almost unaccountable people over your life and the lives of others. or should it be candidate B? Which master do you prefer? That’s where your freedom lies…in your right to choose between two masters. The question from which you are distracted is: why do I need a master at all?
The third way in which La Boetie believed a government induce people to obey and to view it as legitimate was bribery. And I sometimes think the entire election process is one big bribe-fest. Different categories of people are promised everything from high-quality affordable health care for all to absolutely secure borders. And those who received the entitlements or bribes naturally view those who give or promise them to be legitimate, to have a right to make such a gift or promise. Otherwise the entitlement itself is not legitimate.
I want to move on to the main personal reason why I’m a non-voter. I certainly subscribe to the political argument that I’ve just sketched out…which is only one of many possible political reasons not to vote, by the way. But the most compelling argument against voting to me is a moral one.
For centuries now, moral objections have played a large role in decision of many people not to vote. An example with which you may be familiar are the Quakers in 19th century America before the civil war. The Quakers were leaders – arguably they were the leaders and founders – of the anti-slavery movement in America. At great personal risk they lectured and published, they sheltered run-away slaves and were essential to the Underground Railroad. In short, the Quakers were political activists who were deeply committed to social change – indeed, social revolution – on the issue of slavery. But many if not most of the Quakers in the antislavery movement would not vote or run for political office. They had moral – in their case religious – objections to surrendering to any part of their conscience to another human being, to a politician. They believed that every individual had a right and, more importantly to they, every individual had a duty to control their own peaceful actions according to their own moral judgement.
My moral objections are not religiously based. Instead they are rooted in my view of human rights and duties that I believe derive from man’s nature rather than from god’s law. I believe – to use antislavery terminology – that every person is a self-owner. By which I mean, every person has a moral jurisdiction over his or her own body and the peaceful exercise of his or her boy, a jurisdiction that no one else has any business breaching.
The only point at which I would use force against you or sanction the use of force against you is if you aggressed against me or my property or against an innocent 3rd party. To rephrase this, I don’t believe it is ever legitimate to use force against an innocent person who has done you no harm.
So…how does a government legitimately get the power to act against someone who is committing an act of violence? The main way a government acquires legitimacy is that people delegate their rights to government – the administration of their freedom – in much the same manner as you might sign over your rights through a power of attorney. Otherwise stated, if I sign my rights over to a politician, then that man or woman may have some legitimate claim over my person and property in much the same way a lawyer with my power of attorney has a claim over my bank account.
What I have no business doing, however, is delegating or signing over the rights of the person standing next to me, especially if that person is saying “no” and protesting the transfer. Yet, when you vote President and, so, facilitate a person assuming power over your life, you also facilitate placing that person into power over the lives of unconsenting others…people who have done you no harm.
It is a simple argument: don’t harm people who have not harmed you. But I find it compelling. So compelling that if all other objections to voting were swept away, I still couldn’t “do it in the voting booth.”
What is the alternative?
People say: this is the world with which we are confronted. What can one person accomplish, what can one person do except choose the lesser of two evils. You hear the lesser of two evils argument a lot.
In fact – and this is another common pro-voting argument that makes no sense to me — I even hear what has been called “the greater of two evils argument.” People often get quite upset when they I tell them that I do not intend to vote. It is like telling a fundamentalist Christian “there is no god.” In fact, people seem to be more upset with me than they are with person who intends to vote for a candidate they hate. It is as though that they would rather I vote for a palpably evil person like Hitler or Saddam Hussein rather than not vote at all. At least, then I would be performing my civic duty…even if the process meant I endorsed a great evil. That seems to be their logic. And that’s what I refer to as the greater of two evils argument for voting.
But usually what I hear is the “lesser of two evils” argument. It runs something like this…candidate B may not be ideal or even morally acceptable but he’s better than candidate A who is really horrible…so I’ll vote for B.
A friend named Wally Conger once commented,
* In 1984, I rooted for Mondale over Reagan, because I loathed the neoconservative hawks surrounding Reagan.
In 1988, I rooted for Bush over Dukakis, because Dukakis was, well, Dukakis.
In 1992, I rooted for Bush over Clinton, because Hillary was, well, Hillary.
In 1996, I rooted for Dole over Clinton, because, gee, four more years seemed just too awful.
In 2000, I rooted for Bush lite over Gore, because Gore was Clinton without the, uh, charm.
My point here is that choosing the lesser of two evils becomes a habit and I for one don’t want to spend my life repeatedly choosing evil, whether less or greater. That’s not the sort of idealism or vision that rouses me. I don’t resonant to the cry – go forth and do less evil. When do I get to choose the good?
Fortunately, there are time-proven alternative ways to do good: non-violent resistance, education, moral suasion, constructing private alternatives to state institutions, charity and social work… For those who wish to explore those alternatives, I highly recommend a three-volume work by Gene Sharp entitled “The Politics of Nonviolent Action.”
I want to immediately correct, however, an impression I may be leaving you with. I don’t believe voting is just one of many strategies or mechanisms for social change. I don’t think it is an alternative to non-violence if social change is your goal. I believe voting actually maintains the status quo rather than threatening it.
Why? For a few reasons. First of all, when you vote, you are propping up the status quo by sanctioning it with your participation. Second, social change cannot occur by passing a law or electing a candidate. At the point when there is enough support to pass that law or elect that candidate, the change has already occurred in the hearts and minds of the people demanding change…usually through grassroots and educational efforts. In short, government usually lags behind true social change; indeed, government is often the biggest barrier against social change. Why? Because those in power fear change and those whose salaries are government checks have a natural resistance to the changes in funding that accompany fundamental reform.
In concluding, let me return to a point I raised at the beginning of my talk. And that is – I think voting is a very serious matter.
I know that some of you will think I am making too much of the act of voting…and, by extension, you must think the “get out the vote” people (who take the act as seriously as I do) are also over the top. Some people will say that marking on a ballot is nothing more than a “slide of ink”…saying “yes” to candidate is nothing more than an expulsion of air. In short, giving your approval, your personal sanction to a political candidate is no big thing; it doesn’t mean that you bear any responsibility for the candidate’s later actions.
Well…a mark on a ballot is a slide of ink in the same way that your signature on a contract is. Saying ‘yes’ to a politician is an expulsion of breath in the same manner as a verbal contract.
I take your word seriously. I hope you do too. And I hope the word you use in November is “no” to the entire process.