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Voting and Civic Participation


By Jason B. Phillips

It is imperative that people vote. It is undeniable that some politicians notice people who do vote and ignore those who do not. However, many of the people who vehemently disagree with my decision not to vote for a presidential candidate are lacking a holistic view of the concept of democracy. Many of those to whom I speak about the presidential campaign express their desire to vote for President Clinton, an unacceptable option, as he has trampled the concept of ethical leadership, especially in regards to his signing of an extremely suspect welfare reform bill. Bob Dole is merely the lesser of two evils and obviously not the right choice. So, I made my decision and expressed my intention to vote in state and municipal races.

However, the choice is still met with negative responses. People who focus on the right to vote as the foundation upon which political participation is built are making a mistake. They claim that I forfeit my right to be critical of future administrations. And they misunderstand the concept of a civic society. It has to be argued that voting in the current presidential election may not produce any worthwhile results and that other forms of political participation would allow us to avoid having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Most Americans want to choose between the greater of two goods, but do not see how to achieve this goal.

The "choose or lose" attitude promoted by the media cause many to believe that voter turnout percentages in the low thirties mean that democracy cannot or does not work. They are right. However, low voter turnout is not bad in itself and is only symptomatic of a greater problem. I am asserting that not participating in the civic society creates a vicious cycle. If citizens do not or cannot participate, then they will not vote because they do not see positive results from their elected representatives. And, of course, they will not see positive results unless they participate in the civic society regularly as civic society was designed. Much of the apathy that we point to is our fault in a number of ways.

Voting is only a fraction of the concept of political participation. People participate in the political process by contributing money to candidates and parties, by volunteering in political offices and by wearing buttons and displaying bumper stickers. It is often the case that the more one invests in the political process, the more one receives in dividends. Too prove that point, just compare neighborhoods and ask whose potholes are being fixed, whose infrastructure is being rehabilitated and even who gets visits from their representative. The fact that voters choose not to vote should signal that our politics is in need of correcting. And what of the voter who chooses to vote for a candidate who has no measurable chance for electoral success? That voter uses his or her vote to make a value statement, an opportunity that few people take advantage of. I saw a Perot '96 advertisement that claimed that if Americans had voted their conscience in '92, then Perot would have gotten a significantly greater number of votes. If this claim is accurate, then this is indicative of too many people who do not think enough about their vote and probably do not have enough exposure to other forms of political participation.

The "must-vote" mentality has also fostered the belief that those who do not vote forfeit their right to voice displeasure at bad candidates who win office. This notion is an unfortunate distortion of the democratic philosophy because it suggest that only those who participate explicitly in the democratic process deserve to benefit and it also suggests that when a campaign is run there is a clear choice and half of us get it wrong. Given the chance to vote in 1992, I would have voted for Clinton, a choice that is clearly wrong for me in 1996. And it seems that since 1992 I have had nothing but complaints about the Clinton administration. Politics is constantly changing and people cannot be bound to their past voting preferences as though they were the candidate. American history is filled with examples of people who changed the system despite the fact that they were legally excluded from participation. Just because one has the right to participate in politics does not mean that we are forced to renew that right every four years by voting. Think of the thousands of students who excel on the strength of their political beliefs and experience. Not a single one of those people has ever voted. It is part of our fundamental beliefs that political rights cannot be taken away. This logic might also suggest that it is impossible to give them away.

Deborah Abowitz of Bucknell University mentions in her research on political participation that voting is a group activity: "People who work or live or play together are likely to vote for the same candidate." While it is only logical that similar people have similar voting interests, how is it that black conservatives can be disparaged as oxymoronic? This comes through in polling data where candidates become concerned about gender and racial voting gaps when they should be concerned about gender and racial issues. However, if women and minorities do not participate politically then it is only natural for politicians to be worried about their votes and not their issues. Political participation is an individual act and allows for what I would term political creativity. When people participate regularly they work for what they want and who they want and make a statement that, in many respects, is more significant that pulling the lever.

Even though voting is as sacred as a civic action could possibly be, protest, volunteer work, editorial writing and contributions to parties and candidates are more individual and personal than merely checking a box on the ballot. These acts, more so than voting, tend to promote the interests of the people because good public servants listen to effective citizens who work year-round to keep important issues visible. Imagine the problems of the election year. Common sense legislation gets lost and many politicians do their best to cater to polls of likely voters. If our aim is to be able to make a choice between two good candidates then vote for the best candidates at local and state level, participate constantly and continuously and hope that in the future our civic society might entice our best people to run instead of our best politicians.

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