It is one of the few remaining and explicitly condoned social pressures in the United States. Its familiar icon, the “I Voted” sticker, has been transformed, by an overwhelming sense of negative judgement, from a quaint little symbol of quiet patriotic pride to a passive-agressive instrument for identifying those who dare to refuse to cave to peer expectation.
It isn’t just about sensitivity and shaming, though. The overzealous and inescapable insistence that every individual must vote is misguided, and it actively works against the best outcomes for the country by any measure.
The idea that everyone should vote on every issue, on every race, and/or in every election cycle is predicated on a number of false assumptions that most of us are too busy patting our own backs and criticising others to ever take the time to question.
“If you want to improve the system by promoting something, promote causes and people you believe to be beneficial; don’t force feed the voting process itself.”
THE “MORE IS BETTER” FALLACY
For the pupose of this discussion, we should recognize that the intent is to discuss those votes in which the results will be measured by percentage rather than by gross number. If your initiative needs x gross number of votes to pass, then obviously general participation numbers matter. In the case of the more familiar style in which percentages determine outcome, however, achieving the greatest general number of voters should not be the primary concern.
Often, two opposing sides of a vote will each present greater general voter turnout as working in favor of their individual and conflicting positions. This is simply a persuasion technique and cannot possibly be true for both sides simultaneously. A greater number of general voters must either not move the percentage needle at all, or it must actively work against one side. Additionally, too intently promoting greater general voting turnout fails to take into account individual differences in information, impact, investment, and attitude.
THE “NON-VOTERS ARE LAZY AND ARE SHIRKING CIVIC DUTY” FALLACY
Probably the most prevalent implicit and explicit criticism of the people not participating in any given vote is that they are not voting because they are lazy. This is undoubtedly true for some of those people (we’ll discuss them later). The problem with that assumption, though, is that we over-generalize it. We don’t acknowledge that some people who are choosing not to participate in voting for this particular issue, race, or cycle may, under other circumstances, be active voters.
Even when we do allow for that, and we recognize that some people are making a conscious and active decision to abstain, we mistakenly assume that they are “wrong” for doing so. Abstention is a valid and valuable option in the voting process. People firmly entrenched on both of sides of the given issue tend to disapprove because it does not support their particular stance, but that’s a biased and parochial mentality. Anyone claiming that abstention from voting can only be defined as a failure to perform one’s civic duty as an American is ignoring the fact that abstention is an intentionally included element of the American system of governance.
YOU DON’T NEED TO PUNCH A HOLE ON EVERY ISSUE
Abstention is not only a valid option in voting, it is sometimes the most appropriate option. In a perfect voting world, we would all be completely educated in, completely reasonable about, and completely invested in every issue and election for which there was ever a vote. In the real world, that’s just not the case. With very little exception, even the most present and dedicated voters usually at some point fail to participate in voting on at least one issue or race for which they are eligible to vote, and those who don’t probably should.
It would be extremely difficult for any one person to be adequately informed of, impacted by, and invested in the given options in every votable issue and race. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect that of every person. If we can accept that it’s possible for there to be a single issue or race vote on which a person can responsibly elect to abstain, then we can acknowledge that it’s also possible that a particular ballot may consist exclusively of votes that fit this category.
SOMETIMES ABSTAINING IS THE MOST RESPONSIBLE OPTION
As suggested above, even though it is unrealistic to expect every citizen to be adequately informed about every issue and every candidate all the time, some will still argue that there is a degree of irresponsiblity in not being so informed. Perhaps. However, it is more irresponsible for one to fail to recognize when they are not , in fact, adequately informed and to make a willful effort to effect the outcome of the vote in question anyway.
Even in a theoretical situation in which every voter was adequately informed, every individual voter would still not be equally impacted by a vote or equally passionate about a vote. A truly conscientious voter should absolutely recognize that a particular issue may not have an equal impact in their lives to that it has in the lives of some of their fellow citizens. By stepping aside and electing not to cast a vote, the abstaining voter yields their share of voting power to those citizens who may be more directly impacted.
Sometimes a voter may be perfectly informed on the details of a vote and directly impacted by the results of that vote and may still not have a strong opinion about the outcome of the vote. We don’t usually get the opportunity to indicate the intensity of our support/opposition on a given issue or race at the polls, so the only measurable manner of indicating that the outcome may not feel as important to us personally as it does to other voters is to abstain from participation in that particular vote.
YOU DON’T EVEN REALLY WANT EVERYONE TO VOTE
If we really care about what’s best for our towns, cities, counties, and country, we can’t really be in favor of pressuring everyone to participate in voting. Encouraging people to vote in support of your individual stance makes perfect sense, but we have to remember that it is different than attempting to force random voter participation in general. If you want to improve the system by promoting something, promote causes and people you believe to be beneficial; don’t force feed the voting process itself.
In the voting processes we’re discussing, all votes are counted as equal, without additional consideration for voter circumstances. The random voting participation for which you push so hard with your social media posts, your smarmy little sticker, and your relentlessly invasive “are you going to vote”/“did you vote” inquiries may actually work against those things in which you believe and, worse, may work against the best interests of the system.
If your voter participation pressure is successful, it is, by design, influencing those who weren’t planning to vote on their own to now vote. At the very least, they obviously didn’t share the same level of passion about the issues or candidates as those who were self-motivated to vote, and now they’re negating those more earnest votes. In addition, you’re increasing the probability that people who may not be properly informed about and/or directly impacted by the issues and races on which they vote might wrest control of the steering wheel from those who are. Surely you don’t want the future to be determined by those who didn’t know enough or care enough to decide to do so on their own.