With the election coming up, voting is a major hot topic. Many of those who do vote and who take the responsibility of voting seriously have no time for anyone who doesn’t vote, no matter what the reason is behind that decision. And while I understand the viewpoints of the voting demographic — because I used to be one of those who thought voting was an imperative absolute for everyone — I’ve come to have a much more nuanced view of the issue than I did previously.
Unfortunately, the assumption among those who do vote, for the most part, is that those who don’t vote are either lazy, ignorant, irresponsible or plain uninformed. This group believes literally that anyone with any kind of brain in their head would vote after thinking about it for a second.
In fact, these types of voters also can trumpet an extremely annoying corollary to the “you must vote” mantra, which is that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about whatever the result is. That’s also something that I used to believe but have come to regard as arrogant and extremely irritating; it is also fallacious. That’s because we all have the right to vote or not vote and being unhappy with the status quo, whatever it is, is completely reasonable whether you vote or not.
Here, IMHO, are the major reasons why Americans don’t vote:
- They believe their vote doesn’t make a difference
- There is no candidate or no viable candidate that reflects their views
- They don’t have the transportation to get to their polling place or are so swamped with work, childcare, etc responsibilities that they are barely keeping their heads above water financially and voting doesn’t even enter into their consciousness
- Polling hours are incompatible with their schedules and/or absentee ballot/voter ID rules are too cumbersome to navigate
- Convicted of a crime so that they aren’t allowed to vote
- Homeless or victim of a foreclosure without an address
Let’s look at those reasons one by one:
- Believe that their vote doesn’t make a difference: I’ve talked to enough people who believe this that I *think* I understand where they are coming from. Obviously, every vote has the potential to make a difference in terms of who is elected. So that isn’t the issue: the issue is that for these people, nothing in their lives, they believe, will materially change for the better if one candidate wins over the other. Since their lives aren’t going to improve — and will probably get worse regardless of who wins — they don’t see any point in voting and don’t vote. Whether you agree with that perception or not, there is a large segment of the American populace that lives in poverty or is just getting by; many of those people don’t have any experience of their lives getting better and don’t believe that the candidates offer anything that will help them. So they don’t vote.
- There is no candidate or no viable candidate that reflects their views: I have news for many of you, Obama and Romney do NOT reflect the views of thousands, if not millions, of Americans. In fact, their world views and opinions are fairly limited and there are many other possible views and thoughts on how to manage every issue under the sun from the economy to foreign affairs to anything else you can think of. For these people, voting for one of the two mainstream candidates would compromise their views to such an extent that it comes down to an issue of personal integrity. That’s why they don’t vote because neither candidate offers any kind of solution that they are comfortable endorsing.
- They don’t have the transportation to get to their polling place or are so swamped with work, childcare, etc responsibilities that they are barely keeping their heads above water financially and voting doesn’t even enter into their consciousness: Again, this is a larger demographic than you might think, composed of the millions of Americans in marginal or low-wage jobs, who may lack transportation and who can barely manage to keep their financial heads above water. Many work two or three jobs and child care or caring for mentally ill or aging relatives is a constant challenge. They just don’t have the time, money or energy to even go there.
- Polling hours are incompatible with their schedules and/or absentee ballot/voter ID rules are too cumbersome to navigate: This is related to number 3. In many states, polls are only open eight, nine or 10 hours, which is shorter than many shift-work jobs. People working several jobs who lack transportation may also not be able to get to City Hall to fill out or cast an absentee ballot and many states don’t have early voting (my home state of Pennsylvania among them). And the new voter ID laws that have been passed and implemented in many states don’t help, because millions lack driver’s licenses or photo IDs or who are intimidated by these laws.
- Convicted of a crime so that they aren’t allowed to vote: Let’s think about the millions of now law-abiding Americans who were once convicted of a crime, rightly or wrongly. They have done their time, have been released from jail or are off probation and they would LOVE to be allowed to exercise their right to vote. But they can’t because legislators have deprived them of those rights — often for life. Here is a lovely informative chart of the states where prisoners and those convicted of crimes in the past can’t vote. Think about this for just a minute — you would love to vote, but can’t because of one mistake that you made years ago. Or more than one mistake. Is that right? The criminal justice system is so stacked against anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money to hire a good lawyer that this just adds insult to injury. Really? You did your time, have painfully reconstructed your life, maybe even are lucky enough to get a job — try getting a job in this economy with a criminal record — and then you can’t vote. This is SO wrong.
- Homeless or victim of a foreclosure without an address: The homeless and people who have been evicted due to foreclosures and lack addresses have much bigger problems than voting and the desire and ability to vote. That being said, they have the right to vote and there should be a way to help them vote if they want to. See Voter ID laws, another barrier to voting for this demographic.
And here’s my last argument: People, this isn’t the Soviet Union or some other dictatorships where all citizens MUST vote, often for one state-approved candidate. We have the right to vote, but the Constitution does not force us to vote. We are free to make choices in our society that people in many other societies don’t have the ability to make. And — whether you agree with it or not — that includes the right to vote OR not to vote. So the next time someone tells you that he or she isn’t going to vote, think about it for a minute and maybe grant that person the same freedom of choice that you are being granted — the right to make an adult decision for yourself without being second guessed, judged or both.
For me, this is the bottom line: it is a matter of respect. I try to live with an attitude of respect for people, the planet and other living things. That respect includes allowing the people I know and care about and those who I don’t know the right to make choices that are right for them. Who I am I say that my choices, to vote or not to vote, are right for anyone else?
It is also about control, about other people trying to force their views on others and control them. And it’s my firm belief that control is spiritually and emotionally lethal both to the person who is trying to do and to the person it is being done too. So much of the “you must vote imperative” is about control. That doesn’t work. I say let other people make the choices for them, free them from any type of control. As for the election, if you believe in trying to make a difference, go volunteer or whatever. For me, I’m going to keep giving others the respect that I would like to be extended to me in the area of voting/not voting.