And I didn't vote in 2008, though that was more laziness than anything.
This year, it was a combination of laziness (I had no idea where to find a notary public necessary for the absentee ballot) and being upset with the choices my state was giving me. Were I registered to vote in Delaware, Nevada, Texas, Michigan, or maybe even Wisconsin (Russ Feingold!), I very likely would have voted. In South Dakota, however, the choices were somewhat dismal, and the ballot measures even less so (I will get to this later). So, I didn't bother voting.
Let me establish something first: Derek Webb writes that a Christian is called to do one thing only when it comes to performing civic duty, and that is to approach it in a way that is in line with one's conscience. "No party can co-opt a vote that isn't cast," he says. "Voting is a legal right, like carrying a gun or having an abortion. And I can abstain from doing anything I have a legal right to if it violates my conscience." Our conscience is the guide God gave us for following things not explicitly laid out in Biblical law (as Paul outlines in Romans 14). We talk a lot of having a "conviction" about certain issues, and even within the church, we are flabbergasted when people have different convictions about issues than what we ourselves feel. For example, I feel a conviction to help the poor, so much to the point that it would go against my conscience to vote for someone who does not have the same attitude. I feel a similar conviction about war - I cannot put my vote behind a candidate who wants to send an 18 year old to die in a self perpetuating cycle of violence. And I will be honest: I do not feel the same conviction about typically Evangelical issues like abortion, gay marriage or guns.
So I didn't vote. In fact, I haven't voted since I turned 18, and, frankly, I wish I hadn't voted then (in case the math is hard, I turned 18 in 2004, and cast a vote for George W. Bush, and, in the state of South Dakota, for John Thune, both of which are votes I wish I could take back).
Now, I do a lot of discussion of politics, as regular readers of this blog will note. Which is why I know that some of you are a bit surprised to hear that I didn't vote. Having had this discussion several times with different friends (thus the motivation for writing this particular blog entry), I can hear the response now: "But if you don't vote, you don't have a right to complain about the results of that election."
Let's examine that particular objection. It comes, quite specifically, from my Australian friend Justin. In Australia, they have two main parties, but they also have several smaller parties one could vote for if so inclined, which is somewhat similar to the US, but that's where the similarity stops. Australia has compulsory voting, which means that you get fined if you don't vote, and they vote for parties and party platforms in the major elections rather than the leaders, which is, understandably, similar to the UK system.
I'll be honest: I do have a bit of a problem with compulsory voting - I want the right to abstain as much as I want the right to vote if so inclined; so sue me, I like having choices. But, if I was functioning within a system that gave me the choice to vote for the party that most closely aligns to my issues, and not necessarily the person, I might have less of a problem. As it is, though, such an argument is merely academic, as the US has neither compulsory voting nor party elections.
If we take a look at the State of South Dakota, my home state and the place I am registered to vote (as an independent), we see that compulsory voting would be a terrible idea. This year, our junior Senator, John Thune, ran uncontested. There were two major ballot measures: medical marijuana, and banning smoking in bars and other places. The race for our singular representative in the federal House of Representatives was either an incumbent Democrat who voted against the health care reform in a solely political move (in other words, voted against her own conscience on the issue) and voted to put us in Iraq. Or, we had a newbie Republican with very little political experience, but who is anti-abortion, pro-war, pro-guns, anti-gay marriage, and pro-repealing the health care reform (tea party lite, in other words).
Those races and ballot measures are the ones I cared about the most, and I wasn't given very good choices. I always pay attention to South Dakota's ballot measures because there's usually some sort of anti-abortion law. Apparently this year there was almost a measure similar to those taken in Colorado and Arizona, which dictated basically that the health care reform law did not apply to that state. Had that measure been on the South Dakota ballot, you bet I'd have made a greater effort to vote, because that is something I feel a conviction on. However, as it is, I don't really care about medical marijuana, and I don't really care about smoking in businesses.
I would have loved the opportunity to vote John Thune out of office and undo some of what I did when I helped to vote him in. But, he was unchallenged, so voting wouldn't have mattered.
In the house race, I had the choice between voting for someone who shares some of my personal convictions but won't vote for them in office, and someone who is basically antithetical to a number of my convictions. It would mean casting a vote for someone who wasn't going to perform as I want them to, or voting for someone who doesn't share my convictions at all.
That's not really a choice. And I like having choices.
So, instead, I choose to abstain rather than vote in a way which would not honor my conscience, or be in line with my convictions.
Does this mean I now lack the right to complain about the vote?
To quote Sarah Palin, "HELL NO."
I have other means of "performing my civic duty." I can write letters to the Congressmen and women in order to alert them to issues I care about. I can participate in protests and lobby Washington. I can, as I am planning on doing, get a job at a non-profit and participate in the political process that way. And I can still complain, comment, and wax poetic about the results of the political process because by abstaining, I am still voicing an opinion.
I am saying that I refuse to participate in a system that only offers me paltry choices that are not really choices, and doesn't allow me to participate in the choosing of those people representing each party (South Dakota has closed primaries).
I am saying that I will not vote for candidates who I know violate my conscience. The lesser of two evils is still an evil and we need to give up on the stupid idea that voting for the lesser of two evils is somehow committing a good just because you voted.
I am saying that my duties extend beyond the voting booth, and that I can still participate in the political process even without doing this "civic duty." As a citizen of the "Christian nation,"* I am not obligated to vote, but I am still obligated to love my neighbor, which I can do by not voting.
I am saying that I refuse to do a "duty" solely because I am an American and I have a right to do it. I am approaching my choices with the conviction and knowledge and understanding that every American should carry into the voting booth, but rarely happens because we emphasize duty over knowledge.
Think of it this way: When I purchase food for lunch, I am putting my body behind what I buy. I am, with my dollars and my stomach, trusting that food to work for my body, and to hopefully benefit it. In a good system, I will be able to choose for something that, while not perfect, will still be somewhat in line with what I want to eat that day and will be good for my diet - saying, I have the choice of eating a Caeser salad with all the dressing, fried chicken or macaroni and cheese. They may not be the best choices for my body, but at least they'll give me some nutrition. This would be an ideal political system - candidates who align with some of my views but maybe not all of them, available for me to vote for.
What our current system gives me, however, is the choice between a poisoned sandwich, and a poop-filled piece of cake. Sure, the poop cake might not kill me, and it's definitely better than a poisoned sandwich, but I'm still eating poop. This is what happens when we "vote for the lesser of two evils."
And I should have the choice not to eat poop if I don't want to. This doesn't mean I don't get to complain about it when all my friends start throwing up around me.
Grisly image aside: In the midst of elections and campaigns, we hear "VOTE VOTE VOTE DO YOUR DUTY." We gasp at infringements on peoples' rights to vote (think of the controversial Sharron Angle Univision ad which was telling Hispanics, in Spanish, not to vote). We become so concerned about participating in the political process that we never stop to step back and think about whether or not we should. Maybe, just maybe, there are times when abstaining is the right choice. In this midterm election, my choices were terrible, and I refuse to vote for something that goes against my conscience, something that would poison the system more. Sure, I may be hungry for a little while waiting for something better, but in the meantime, I can talk to the chef, and I can hope to motivate change in other areas.
*By Christian nation, I mean God's Kingdom, not 'Murrica.
^Picture stolen from my friend David Kosmak.