What I want to tell people who don’t vote

As we approach a primary election (May 2) in South Bend, I  want to take this opportunity to talk about not voting, or rather, about reasons why some American citizens don’t vote.

When I ask people if they vote, I almost always get a few who simply say “I don’t vote.”  At first, I just let it slide – I mean, what are you going to do with that?

But then I started asking “WHY don’t you vote?” I figured it was worthwhile to know why, and to listen and learn and grow from their answers.  (I am also very nosy.)

There are the usual responses like, “It’s too inconvenient because Election Day is always a Tuesday and I work.”  Or they answer “I don’t have the time,” or “It’s too much work to research, know the issues, and then vote intelligently.”

Here in St. Joseph County, Indiana, you can choose the day to vote, within 28 days prior to an election day, without an excuse.

 If you are 65 or older, or have a disability, or meet one of nine other criteria, you can vote by mail.

Lots of nonprofit groups, as well as political parties, spend a lot of time, money, and effort making sure issues and candidates are out there so you can read about them or listen to them.  You can research further with just a few clicks of your mouse.

And then there’s the excuse that your one vote doesn’t matter.

Tell that to the people of Virginia.  In 2017, a hotly contested race for District 94 in the Virginia legislature ended up in an absolute tie.  The tie was resolved by a random drawing in January of 2018, with the GOP candidate winning.  That’s just one example.

If you’re a staunch conservative and you fail to vote, you can blow it for your party.  If you lean to the left and fail to vote, it can literally be your fault if reasonable gun restrictions are voted down in that state.

But by far, the most discouraging reason why some people don’t vote is they (air quotes with fingers) “don’t like politics.”  

Which results in me asking “Well, what DO you like?  What DO you care about?”

Do you care about food and like to eat?  Do you like beer?  Do you enjoy good health, and want that to continue?  How about your kid’s education?  Do you care about getting a paycheck?  A disability check?  A social security check?  How about your home?  Your dog?  Your cat?  Your garden?

Almost all these things can, at some point, eventually become political.  And that’s why you need to vote.  That’s why you need to pay attention.

Peggy Noonan, an author who was Ronald Reagan’s speech writer and special assistant, has written, “Our political leaders will know our priorities only if we tell them, again and again, and if those priorities begin to show up in the polls.”

Let’s assume you don’t like our two major political parties, and that’s why you don’t vote. I can say that I know your pain.  I have often wished for a third major political party and that candidates from that party would actually have a chance at winning.

But more Americans are calling themselves “Independent” these days, which underscores our ability to cross party lines at a general election and vote for the person we trust the most, and whose politics and priorities most closely allign with our own.

And it comes down to this:  This system is what we have.  I know that sounds like “Shut up and eat your dinner.”  But our system has evolved because of its ability to build consensus and train people to hold office.  Lessons have been learned about the value of bipartisanship in a representative government.

Some countries, like Australia, mandate voting.  There are penalties for not voting, like not getting the job you want.  I’m not willing to go that far, since compulsory voting would certainly butt up against our constitutional rights.  You could easily argue that freedom of expression could mean the right to not vote, as well as the right to vote.

It’s better to urge people to vote, for all the right reasons.

Barack Obama has said that the biggest threat to democracy is NOT Russian interference, but indifference and cynicism.

Cynicism is a form of laziness.  It means you don’t have to do any work at all.  You just curse the system without making any effort to improve it.  If you don’t vote, I then ask “What ARE you doing to make democracy work?”

History shows that some 80 to 100 million American sit out the elections.  We have one of the lowest turnouts in the developed world, according to Pew Research.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn that around?  Would it be great if every registered voter viewed voting as a celebration of democracy, and reward themselves with, to quote John Quincy Adams, “the sweetest reflection that your vote is not lost.”?

To people who don’t vote, I would like to end my response with the words of blogger Lexi Herrick.  She asks us to consider the depth of our vote:

“Are you one of the following?  A minority, a woman, a member of the middle class, and American citizen, an immigrant, or a human being?  If so, someone has fought like crazy for you to have a say in this country that you want to throw away.”