The first rule of Voting Club is that we do not complain unless we have voted. The second rule of Voting Club IS THAT WE DO NOT COMPLAIN UNLESS WE HAVE VOTED!
The cliché saying goes, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”
However, political lethargy is widespread in the United States. By and large, Americans increasingly don’t vote. The 2014 midterms experienced the lowest voter turnout in 72 years—only 36% of eligible voters cast a vote. And judging by the comment sections of most online publications, Americans sure do like to complain. (Thanks Obama!) So this means Americans are breaking the first two rules of Voting Club.
But is the act of voting a significant or virtuous act just by itself?
When prioritizing the list of potential activities by a politically-engaged citizenry, participating in election day is considered the “bare minimum” by most. Considering the fact that often times the majority of Americans don’t vote, and those who do vote very rarely engage in politics otherwise, wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that the American electorate is simply not doing enough? Can one day of voting every two years make up for the 729 straight days of political inertia between elections?
The main reason that many don’t vote is simply because they think the election is already decided before they even get to cast a vote. According to Rasmussen, 62 percent of Americans think “elections are rigged.” And this 62 percent may be onto something considering the following: In 2014, Congress had an 11 percent approval rating, but 96 percent of incumbents were re-elected. Very few jobs have the luxury of such abysmal performance reviews with such low turnover rates.However, the politicians aren’t always to blame for this scenario. There is a lack of self-awareness in the general public when it comes to enabling the ineptitude of our elected leaders.
Polls find that 62 percent of voters—the very same ones who supposedly disapprove of Congress—were satisfied with their own representative in Congress. In short, all politicians are to blame, except for “my guy” or “my gal.”
According to Rasmussen polls, over 90 percent of Americans believe voters need to be informed and educated before casting their vote, but only 9 percent believe that voters are actually reasonably informed to do so. However, only one in three voters were actually able to name their congressional representative. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” best describes this condition of not knowing your elected leaders, but criticizing others for being uninformed.
Winston Churchill once mused, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” He may be right.
Even if voters are informed, there still might be a chance that their vote won’t even matter. If you are a member of a minority party in a state that swings predominately in one particular partisan direction—say a Texas Democrat or a California Republican—you might as well not bother voting for a presidential candidate, based on the fact that the Electoral College is just going to neutralize your vote.
If you are fortunate enough to live in one of the seven swing states, your vote might actually have some value in a competitive race. In addition to swing state voters, those living in Maine and Nebraska—the only two states that don’t follow the “winner-take-all” method when awarding electoral votes—have a little hope of potentially splitting the vote. Even Democrats in Nebraska, a definite minority, were able to throw one of the state’s five electoral votes toward Obama in 2008.
But if you reside in the rest of the United States, there doesn't seem to be much incentive to visit your local precinct on Election Day.
And does voting provide an avenue for actual reform? That all depends. Referendums and ballot initiatives have the ability to spawn radical changes within certain states, such as recreational marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado in 2014.
However, for issues demanding national reforms, voting seems to do very little. Consider the issue of same-sex marriage. Up until Obergefell v. Hodges, states that voted in favor of same-sex marriage were few. Maryland and Maine were the first to do it in 2012. But prior to that, 32 states voted on the issue of same-sex marriage—all of them defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In fact, if put to a vote, it was more likely that voters would approve a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. A lot of good the ballot box to achieve this reform.
Often times, there isn't even the possibility to use the ballot box. It might have been nice to have the opportunity to vote on topics like the NSA's domestic surveillance program or our excessive military spending. Instead, all we can do is send our congressional representatives a well-written email that they will most likely ignore.
When considering the power of your vote, it’s hard not to feel disenfranchised. The words of Emma Goldman always seem timeless in these moments of political frustration: “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.”