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Even if you didn’t vote, you still have the right to complain
Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey dissects the usual arguments for voting.
Times editorial columnist
Did you vote? If you didn’t, it’s all right. Maybe you don’t follow political things. Surely it is a sign of maturity and good judgment that those who don’t follow politics don’t vote.
People have other reasons. I had an aunt who didn’t vote. She was not ignorant. She had been educated at the University of Washington, and every morning and night she watched the TV news. In 1974 she sat with me through the impeachment hearings of President Nixon. She was glad she hadn’t voted for him; she hadn’t voted for any president since Herbert Hoover. She told me she didn’t know enough about any of them to make a good decision.
In this election I know a person who voted for the state ballot measures on taxes, schools and marriage, but not for president. The president might start a war, and she said she didn’t want blood on her hands.
I voted. I always vote in presidential elections. But it seems to me that we voters too easily trumpet our superiority. We prop ourselves up with reasons that don’t make sense.
We say, “If you don’t vote you won’t count.” Yes, but does your vote really “count” either way? Your vote is like a penny. It’s money too small to buy anything.
And yes, I know that in 2004, Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi were separated by just 133 votes. Did you have 133 votes? I didn’t. To politicians, that race for governor of Washington proves that “every vote counts.” And that’s true for the people running political campaigns. They can influence many ballots. You have only one.
People also say, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” One of the better answers to that was by George Carlin:
“Where is the logic in that?,” he asked in one of his stand-up routines. “If you vote and you elect dishonest, incompetent people and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You caused the problem. You voted them in. You have no right to complain. I, on the other hand, who did not vote, who in fact did not even leave the house on Election Day, am in no way responsible for what these people have done and have every right to complain.”
I disagree with our logician on one point. Everyone has a right to complain. I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and I still complain about him.
Some theorists argue that voting is a matter of tribal behavior, like cheering the UW Husky football team. There’s a difference. Football is a contest for the sake of itself; moving the ball over the goal line doesn’t do anything. A presidential election is a contest for political authority — the power to regulate, to tax and spend, and to make war.
Said another of the philosophers, Robert Heinlein, “Whether it is exerted by ten men or ten billion, political authority is force ... the power of the Rods and the Ax” (“Starship Troopers,” 1959).
To vote is to participate in creating authority. That the people, en masse, choose their rulers is important; the countries that do it are different from countries that don’t. To me, that’s worth participating in. But I can’t prove, either in mathematics or morals, that my vote this year mattered in any other way.
If you voted, good. If you didn’t, that’s OK, too. You are free to complain.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org