The confession of such a deliberate heresy to our civic religion provokes shock, dismay, and sometimes hostility among even its weakest adherents. They accuse me of forfeiting one of my most important rights. Public service announcements equate not voting with not caring about the future of the country. I have been told that I am helping to undermine our democratic institutions.
Democracy, of course, would not exist without the right to vote. The ability to participate in one’s government is an essential check on corruption and ensures that the ruling power serves the interests of those ruled. In a Lockean sense, it also represents the consent of the people that defines civil government. But people have forgotten that there is another right essential to American democracy, nearly as important in what it symbolizes: the right not to vote.
The right not to vote represents our freedom not to define ourselves around politics–the freedom, in fact, not to follow politics at all. It is the choice to govern one’s own life directly—not by way of Washington—as well as the ability to refrain from interfering in the lives of others. It is the freedom to withhold our approval from government.
Why should I vote? Some argue that I should vote to change the result of the election. But the chance of a presidential election coming down to one vote is on the order of one in ten million (and imagine the scandal and litigation if it actually happened!)
Some argue that I should vote because if everybody did not vote, democracy would not work. But this is a deeply silly argument. One does not control everybody’s vote, but only one’s own. Besides, if we imagined that everybody else would act the same way as ourselves, voting would be unnecessary–we could just unanimously decide on a candidate. Not voting is a form of dissent; like those who choose to vote, I do it because I disagree with others.
Some argue that I should vote to express myself. But is it impossible to find a better way to express oneself than pulling a lever in a closed booth and marking down the name of a proxy with which one barely agrees?
Some argue that it is my civic responsibility to vote. But many voters fail to fulfill a far greater responsibility–understanding the issues. Surveys have repeatedly demonstrated the colossal ignorance of the average citizen. A 2004 Cato Institute analysis of election surveys found that voters were startlingly unaware of relevant information. For example, in the 2000 National Election Study, the average respondent correctly answered only 14.4 questions out of 31. Only 50 percent correctly identified which party controlled the Senate before the election; only 11 percent of the survey respondents could identify the post held by William Rehnquist, then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Can one really argue that those who know almost nothing about the issues, the candidates, or the government are being irresponsible by not voting? Or that those who know little and do vote are better for democracy? Learning about political issues is costly, and many choose not to do it. Say what you will about that decision, but one cannot argue that these people are harming the country if just by deciding not to vote. The blanket appeals to everyone just to vote, therefore, do not address the deeper problem of voter ignorance and are unlikely to lead to a better-informed voting populace, especially considering that those who do not vote are likely to know less about the issues than the average voter.
Some argue that I should vote to send a message. But not voting sends perhaps the strongest message of all. It expresses discontent with the entire slate of candidates and with the current state of democracy. Perhaps more importantly, unlike a “lesser of two evils” vote, it does not signal that the winning candidate has received the blessing of the voter. An increased turnout can often give the winner a greater mandate, one that he or she may not deserve.
Some argue that I should vote so I can have control over my own life and future as an American. But I do not want my life to be determined by a process I have so little control over. I do not want to live in a nation in which power over our lives is outsourced to Washington and we are forced to vote and lobby to regain control. A culture in which not taking part in government is stigmatized leads to a culture in which political life is glorified and private life is vilified and a government that believes that my vote is the only right I have against it.
And so I protest by not voting. Other non-voters may have different reasons, but all of them should have the right to refuse to take part in this election, simply because they want to exercise their right not to vote—unthinkable as it may be for those who invest much of their time and self-worth in the race. Just as voters should be free to choose between the candidates, they should also be free not to choose.
Daniel P. Robinson ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.