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Nov 8, 2016

Voting Is Trivial, but Its Cost Is Not

Voting takes more out of us than a simple trip to the polls.

Every four years, as the US presidential campaign nears its conclusion, the rhetoric surrounding the decision to vote follows the same progression of intensity: Voting goes from being one of many rights of citizenship within a democracy, to being the single most important civic duty an eligible voter can engage in. We, as citizens, are bombarded with people telling us that not only does our vote matter, but it might be the only thing standing between the world as we know it and the dissolution of civil society. While many of these voices are locked into a shouting match of growing revulsion and hostility—insisting that our obligation to vote includes an obligation to vote for the candidate of their choice—others are ready to insist that they do not care who we vote for, so long as we just get out and vote. Underlying each of these arguments is an unshakable faith in the assertion that participating in the US electoral system bears no cost to the potential voter, and is therefore always a better option than choosing not to participate.

This assumption, that the decision to participate in the process of voting for a presidential candidate will have no cost for any potential voter, is a position of willful and harmful ignorance. Evidence of the trauma created by the hateful and borderline abusive discourse of this election continues to pile up on the personal, interpersonal, and even social scale. There is a whirlwind of information, and misinformation, in regards to this election that even our political and media experts struggle to sort through and assemble into a consensus of discernible facts. A potential voter must account for the emotional and mental investment necessary to research and develop an informed opinion on the candidates, as well the possible outcomes of each of them being elected, or else they are probably just going to vote in accordance with the popular sentiment within their immediate community.

This is what most of the shouting voices are counting on—that you, as a voter, will participate in the system as expected, so that future election results can be accurately anticipated for long-term strategic planning. Political scientists and analyst have careful determined where voting will and will not have even a remote chance of influencing election results down to a county by county basis and are counting on the general pro-voting sentiment to keep everyone else voting enough to keep the system predictable. Telling another person that it is their duty to invest their time and energy into an act that will have a measurably insignificant impact on their own life or that of their immediate community is an unkindness and an attempt to legitimize the electoral system as well as the false construct that present and future participation is the only means of changing it.

Voting or not voting is a choice that a person must be free to make, not pushed into as a duty or a responsibility. Encouraging others to take an active position in their lives, their communities and the structures that organize them can be a wonderful act of civic engagement, and certainly this nation is desperate for acts of civic engagement that actually strengthen communities and create mutual understanding. However, voting is not such an act. 

While the cost of participating in an election may or may not feel reasonable to you personally—based upon your access to electoral information that you believe to be factual and reliable—the cost of voting is different for different people. Telling everyone they have to vote or they are a unengaged citizen is leveraging a false narrative against everyone for whom the opportunity cost of voting is more than it is for you.