Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Why Not Voting is Never the Answer

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
This weekend on NPR, I caught a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement.  This seemed pretty par for the course, with the group discussing whether it was pragmatic or hurting the movement's cause to be interrupting Hillary Clinton, and whether Hillary Clinton was handling the movement well or not. Toward the tail-end of the discussion one of the panelists started talking about how the movement needed to start working to mobilize voters and start getting behind a candidate that backed their ideals, and Farajii Muhammad, one of the panelists and a radio host of Listen Up! made the comment that perhaps the movement would sit out the election because he didn't think any of the candidates would meet the exact standards of the organization.  This set off a firestorm on the NPR panel, turning it briefly from one of the few places you can get into a decent conversation about policy and into a cable news channel.  This is in part because people who speak on NPR and listen to NPR are statistically more likely to vote, and also because suggesting not voting sets off a firestorm in all of them, including me.  As a result of that, I figured it was my civic duty on today, Election Day, to remind everyone five reasons that it's desperately important not to sit out next year's elections...and this year's!

1. Candidates Don't Get It When You Don't Vote

The thing that I think instantly bothered me about Muhammad's statement was years of following elections, and realizing that candidates don't get it when you don't come out and vote, especially if you're further to the left or further to the right.  The assumption is always that the candidates or party should have moderated their tone more to appeal to the critical moderate/independent voters.  If you're a fervent activist, it's going to be assumed that you will vote, and even if you don't it's hard to tell why you didn't vote.  This is particularly an issue for the Black Lives Matter movement, fairly or unfairly, because they are part of another demographic, one that is statistically less likely to vote: the young.  African-American turnout, particularly under President Obama, has actually increased to the point where the only other ethnicity in the country that votes with higher percentages are 'White/Non-Hispanic' voters, and even that's a pretty close gap.  Meanwhile, the youth vote stays home regularly.  If Black Lives Matter stays out of the election, many may assume that it's simply part of the youth vote staying home.

It's also worth noting that making a habit of staying home is bad for your issues.  Candidates, particularly successful candidates, are going to placate first to the people who got them there and what is important to them.  Their office may be to serve all of their citizens, but the reality is that they know who actually voted to get them into office and whine they can count upon, and you risk becoming someone that wasn't necessary if you don't vote and they still win.  There is most definitely a better option to have your voice heard earlier in the process to send a message of how important you are to a specific candidate and their election chances, and it happens before the general.

2. Primaries Matter

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
I used to think that primaries were a bit of a formality, and hardly worth the paper they were written on since incumbents were (and still are) elected by landslides during them almost all of the time.  However, I have come to realize (and so should you) that primaries are a great place to cast a protest vote or show a candidate that you disagree with that they should go further to the left/right/center on an issue.  The reality is that primary voters, provided you aren't just sneaking in to help a Todd Akin to get your actual candidate a better shot (which is pretty rare, let's be honest here), are by-and-large going to be supportive of a candidate of the same party in the general-statistics bear this out.  However, casting a vote for a different candidate in the primary sends a political message to the winner that they need to take this race, and your vote, more seriously.  And trust me, they will-it's easier to get the vote of someone who opposed you in the primary than that elusive "independent" voter. 

This actually works, and it doesn't risk you losing a powerful voice when the going gets tight in a general and the stakes are considerably higher.  Look at this year, where Hillary Clinton's platform and rhetoric sure has gotten a lot more economically progressive, something that Bernie Sanders and his supporters have caused.  Clinton is now on-the-record on a host of issues that are important to the economically liberal, something that they can cash in later when they point out she made campaign promises, and it's something that she'll have to stand-by or be thought a flip-flopper.  The same thing happened in 2012 with Mitt Romney when the Right decided to consider people like Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, and Romney got the message that he needed to appease the conservatives before he got a chance at the general election.  Mitt Romney had a far more conservative tone going into the general election as a result of this, and was far different than when he ran for governor or the Senate.

3. Pragmatism is Underrated, but Critical

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
I point out Romney not only because it's an example of a primary audience that kept their issues alive even when their preferred candidate failed, but it's also because Romney lost, and it's to point out that occasionally pragmatism is an underrated virtue.  I'm aware to any young activist (of which I occasionally count myself amongst you) that the idea of waiting a year or even another election cycle for your issue to be heard is anathema, and this is particularly true for Black Lives Matter, where lives literally are in the balance on these issues.  However, you can't have a candidate you agree with 100% of the time on the ballot unless you run yourself.  Sometimes you have to pick the better of the two candidates.  And note that I said better of the two candidates here, not "the best of two evils" because that's a pretty eye-rolling and hackneyed look at American politics.  If nothing else has happened in the hyper-polarized nature of current American politics, it's actually the moderate or politically-diverse person who should be complaining, not the hardcore partisan, about a candidate's views.

Plus, you never know when that vote is going to be for someone who wants to back your view, but needs the public to be more on his or her side.  The reality is that no one is really Mr. Smith going to Washington anymore (to be honest, no one ever really was-that was just an invention of Frank Capra).  Take a look at another hot topic issue like gay marriage, arguably the most successful movement of the past ten years in terms of swiftness and results.  A Democrat voting in North Dakota in 2012 who had their partisan blinders on may not have been able to tell the difference between Heidi Heitkamp and Rick Berg on the issue, and using Farajii Muhammad's logic, may have just sat out the election.  However, looking at their rhetoric on the issue and some of their other stances surrounding the issue, it was obvious that A) Heitkamp was the more likely of the two to eventually change her mind if she could get a little more leeway from public opinion and B) Heitkamp was certainly going to be more supportive of other gay-rights issues like ENDA.  This ended up being the case-Heitkamp came out in favor of gay marriage soon after the election, and was part of the cascade of Democratic senators who likely helped push the Supreme Court to back gay marriage.  Sitting out that election, which was insanely close, would have cost gay marriage-activists a voice in the Senate on their issue.  Sometimes you have to show that there is more than one issue on the ballot, and realize sitting out the election means you don't care about any of them.

4. You Never Know What Will Be the "Close One"

Heitkamp's a good example here, because her election was decided by less than 3000 votes.  While her election was expected to be close, no one thought it would be that close (and quite frankly, no one really thought Heitkamp had a shot).  This shows that votes matter.  People frequently say "one vote doesn't make a difference," and technically they are right as extraordinarily few elections are decided by a single vote.  However, the number of people who say "one vote doesn't matter" almost certainly adds up to enough votes in close elections to sway the outcome, but the problem is you never know when you're about to cast a ballot in an election that will be that close.

In 2008, for example, I wasn't wild about Al Franken.  I was tired of Minnesota having celebrity politicians, and I didn't like that we had gone to that well as a Democratic Party rather than picking a known-quantity politician who hadn't published racy stories in Playboy.  However, I agreed with Franken on more issues than Norm Coleman, and so I decided I needed to go out and mark my ballot for him, and so I did.  Franken's election was always assumed to be close, but no one in their right mind thought that 312 votes were what would get him into the Senate.  Democrats like me, who quite frankly could have just skipped that spot on the ballot and gone in and voted for Obama, were what tipped that election to Franken (because by that margin, everyone who voted for Franken for whatever reason tipped that election).  Chris Gregoire in 2004, Maria Cantwell in 2000, and of course George W. Bush in Florida in 2000 won by a hair's breadth, enough so that a group of politically-charged voters surely would have mattered.

5. Elections Have Consequences Whether You Vote or Not

President George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore
And the reason that this is important is that those elections had extremely critical consequences.  If 538 more people had gotten out and (provided they weren't confused by butterfly ballots) voted for Al Gore in 2000, we'd have a completely different set of past fifteen years.  It's hard to imagine the Iraq War or the current state of affairs on climate change or the lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina had Al Gore been elected president.  Considering his record on Civil Rights, one could even make the argument that Black Lives Matter might not have as much work to do today had Gore been elected president.  And yet, that was an election almost no one thought was going to be important; everyone just saw two hyper-privileged men, both from pedigreed political backgrounds, and neither of which seemed really "presidential" in the way we had come to expect.  The amount of people that year who said "I see no difference between the candidates" was deafening, and yet it couldn't have been more wrong. 

This also proves you don't know when your election will count the most.  When people voted in 2000, they were thinking about the economy, but they probably weren't casting their ballots (or not casting them) realizing that they were keeping the Supreme Court conservative for another generation.  When Republicans missed the polls in 2008 for Norm Coleman, I suspect they didn't know they were basically guaranteeing Obamacare indefinitely (Franken's vote ensured that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority, something they required in order to get the law enacted).  And no one would have assumed that by having Maria Cantwell win in 2000 by less than a hundredth of a percentage point that a few months later the Democrats would control the Senate thanks to a party switch.  You don't know what you're entirely voting on when you cast a ballot today, next Spring, or next November.  You can know where your candidate will stand on issues, and you have to make an educated guess based on that.  But not voting is never the solution-you can't complain if you don't vote, goes the cliche, but you also shouldn't be able to look yourself in the mirror without knowing what a difference you would have made had you voted.  Elections have consequences-be part of that, and make your voice heard, and NEVER sit out an election.

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