Sorry Folks, I’m Gonna Sit This One Out

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” — Emma Goldman

I have no doubt that I’m going to catch some flack for this, and that’s okay.  Maybe my cynicism has become so deep that I need a good browbeating, I’m not sure.  But I’m just going to come out and say it:

For the first time, in a general election during my adult life, I will not be voting in 2010.

I know the arguments for voting, and I know them well.  How else am I supposed to have my voice heard?  Mom always has stressed this point, saying, in her blunt Hoosier way of putting things, “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”  That was ingrained into my way of thinking from childhood.  In fact, I have always so loved complaining that I went out on my 18th birthday and made a special trip to the local board of elections, specifically to register to vote (and just before I bought a pack of cigars and a Playboy).  I certainly wasn’t about to lose that right.

I know that voting is my “democratic duty” and that a democracy is not functional without participation from everyone.  This is true.  Except that I don’t live in a democracy.  A true democracy is a form of government in which the populace votes on all issues individually, and collectively decides the laws and rules of the land.  We in the United States like to say that we’re part of a democracy, but we’re not.  We live in a federal democratic republic, three significant words meaning three specific things.  We do have a democratic aspect of how we operate, in that we do get the opportunity to vote.  However, what we vote for is that republic part — various people who are designated to represent us in the functioning government, acting as our proxies to make laws and so forth.  At the same time, our democratic republic is a federal system, meaning there’s multiple layers: municipalities, counties, states and federal governments.  It’s a pretty messy system, but admittedly, it’s a cleaner system than a true democracy, in which everyone would have to vote on everything; in essence, more than a full-time job.

But, I’m not intending to participate in this federal democratic republic either this year.  Let’s look at the why from two perspectives, one more theoretical, the other specific to this year’s context.

Two important systemic conditions make it difficult to logically argue for participation in any election: the entrapment of the American political apparatus into a laughably undemocratic two-party system, combined with the sheer size of this voting populace, which means my vote has an infinitesimally small chance of deciding any election.  Let’s look first at the two-party system.  The arguments here have been hashed out time and time again, undoubtedly, but here’s my take.

We, as voters, are given a choice for most offices between two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican.  Generically speaking, the candidates’ beliefs are supposed to fall in-line with the party’s stated platform, and you get an either-this-or-that decision to make.  If outlawing abortion is your key issue, then congratulations, you’re a Republican.  If you like spending money more on infrastructure than wars, chances are you’re a Democrat.  If you’re someone who doesn’t like abortion but also doesn’t like wars, which to me seems like a logical, all-around anti-death connection… well, you’re shit out of luck in most cases.  You have to make a choice between one and the other.

Sure, there are some in each party which sometimes diverge from the party line on some issues.  These folks are few and far between, and the chances that they’ll be up for election in your district or state is very low.  The primary election process is designed specifically to weed these people out, so you’re more likely to be stuck with a couple of party-line demagogues.

Sadder still is the fact that the differences between the two parties is mostly minimal, save hot-button issues that candidates use to scream about to gain support from irrationally emotional and otherwise one-issue voters (like, say, about abortion, war, immigrants, minorities, terrorists and so on).   Democrats, on the wider political spectrum, are center-right, while Republicans are far-right.  How are they similar?

  • Both parties have a strong desire to drop bombs on and shoot at brown people in the Middle East, all while funneling military aid to them through the back door.
  • Both parties have long maintained no concern for the issues of brown people in Africa, ignoring multiple genocides in the past 20 years.
  • Both parties like to cut funding for important domestic programs like aid to the impoverished, healthcare, education and infrastructure.
  • Contradictory to that last point, both parties like to cut taxes and increase spending (mostly on the military), necessitating the borrowing of money and putting the government into a deep debt.  Both parties like to use this debt as an excuse for why there isn’t more spending to help the poor, improve healthcare, strengthen education, or build infrastructure.
  • Members of both parties, especially those in Congress, like to get unnecessary appropriations for idiotic projects in their home districts to retain popularity.  Usually, these projects do nothing to feed poor people, educate children, or bring better healthcare to the sick.  Sometimes, they build infrastructure, but many times this infrastructure is redundant or completely unnecessary.
  • Both parties like to enact policies that allow corporations to take advantage of citizens, their lifestyle, their health and their environment.  People are still enslaved by consumerism and debt, healthcare is still a for-profit enterprise, and the environment is still being destroyed by corporations.
  • Both parties (largely) hijack Christianity for uses of moral piety.
  • Both parties have no problem taking a giant dump on our gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender friends. How is it 2010 and same-sex marriage is still largely outlawed?

I could go on, and on, and on, but that’s probably enough to make the point.  The parties are more alike than different, and at the same time, the two parties overwhelmingly dominate the political system.  I also really don’t like how someone who considers themselves to be independent (like myself) is also automatically assumed to be a moderate (which I’m certainly not).  There are some other parties out there, including Libertarians, Reform, Green, and others, but third-party candidates and independents rarely have a chance because people have become accustomed to voting for either one or the other.  People are nothing if not creatures of habit.

Really, though, how poor are the chances for third-party candidates?  There hasn’t been a successful third-party bid for the presidency since, basically, 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won for the Republicans, who at the time were afterthoughts behind the Democrats and the Whigs.  We need a bigger statistical set than that, though.  Let’s take the U.S. Congress.  There are 535 seats available in every Congress, and there have been since 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii entered the union.  From 1950 to 1959, there were 531, 96 senators and 435 representatives.  Okay, so doing the math with this, there were 15,499 seats in the various Congress from 1950 to present.  How many of those were held by either 3rd party candidates or independents?  A total of 34, or 0.22%.  Those are pretty long odds for a candidate who’s not either a Democrat or a Republican to get elected, which mean that most opinions beyond those parties’ platform are unlikely to get represented.

Another aspect of how this system fails comes simply from its sheer size.  The size of this democratic republic is problematic in two ways: first, that the structure of our government places undue demands on for each single seat in congress to represent a substantial population (meaning, one that is more likely to have a diverse array of opinions); and second, that there’s a strong likelihood in every federal race that one vote will not matter.

When the United States government was established in 1789, the government was responsible for governing about 3.8 million people.  Today, the same structure works to govern 306 million people.  The 1790 Census reported that the most populous state at the time, Virginia, had 747,610 residents.  Sure, some 292,000 of those people were slaves — and hence considered only 3/5 of a person for sake of proportional representation — but this sizable population for the infant republic was enough to give Virginia the largest congressional delegation, with 10 representatives and two senators.  When we account for the fact that only adult white men were eligible to vote, this leaves us with 110,936 potential voters, which means that each member of the House delegation represented 11,094 voters.  The smallest state, Delaware, had 59,094 people, or just 11,783 voters for its one member House delegation.  In both cases, tiny numbers!

What about today?  In 2009, the U.S. Census estimated that the smallest state, by population, was Wyoming, which had been the case for decades.  Wyoming’s population was estimated to be 544,270, which granted Wyoming one representative.  Of those 544,270, around 412,000 are considered eligible voters.  This means that Wyoming has a voter to representative ratio of 412,000 to one, a far cry from the days of 1790.  But this, admittedly, is a best case scenario.  Consider California, with its 36,961,664 people in 2009, who are represented by 53 representatives.  Some 23.5 million of those folks are considered eligible voters, meaning that each representative for California represents, on average 443,296 voters.

Given the fact that it can be difficult for four people to come to a consensus regarding where to eat dinner on a Saturday night, how likely is it that a single person can honestly represent the interests of 443,296 people?  It’s really not terribly possible.

Beyond all of these daunting numbers, let me throw a few more at you.  Take my House district, the Ohio 17th District represented by Democrat Tim Ryan.  In the last midterm election (2006), 207,283 people voted, including me.  The numbers were higher in 2008 — 260,031 — which is expected in presidential elections.  Okay, so 207,283 people voted….  Let’s even tone that number down and guess that 200,000 will vote on Tuesday, for sake of mathematical simplicity.  In order for my currently-abstaining vote to be the deciding vote in a two-horse race, the candidates would have to evenly split the vote, 100,000 to 100,000.  The likelihood of that happening is a 1:200,000 probability (200,000 representing all of the different results of the election) which is basically nil (0.0005%).

The probability is even lower when you consider that such a close election, by state law, triggers a recount that is highly likely to find a problem with ballots on each side, resulting in an uneven number of votes discarded, and a winner for the race.  Whatever number you’re thinking is the probability that my vote would matter after all of that, you can cut it in half again.  Why?  Because if the vote ends in a dead tie, after recounts, then it’s decided by a coin flip, which means my vote would only theoretically create a different result 50% of the time.  Point being, the chance that my vote matters, as I said, is infinitesimally small…. never mind the fact that in both recent elections, Tim Ryan, the Democrat, has reliably won nearly 80% of the vote in this very Democrat-friendly district.

So, what if everyone realized this and quit voting?  Newsflash: they haven’t, and they won’t.  The Democrats and Republicans both have too many folks in their folds, and others have been told (like I was) from day one that voting is an important civic duty.  Even with the U.S. having pitiful voter turnouts compared to most countries — 61% in 2008 made political analysts weep with joy — the numbers are simply too big.  Not only that, how many of these folks are influenced by idiotic, condescending and downright juvenile television commercials, lawn signs, and other methods of political communication that assume that the populace is, much like my bullmastiff, brain dead with a major drooling problem?  It’s a scary thought.

What about local elections?  I mean, state and local governments are far more important to a citizen’s daily life than the feds anyway, right?  Well, that’s as good of a place to start talking about this year’s specific context, and more importantly, how my life situation fits into that specific context.

Here’s the thing: chances are, as of August 1, 2011 (or earlier), I will no longer be a resident of the state of Ohio.  It’s nothing personal against Ohio nor a value judgement against living in the state, it’s just a matter of probability.  There aren’t many jobs seeking a PhD in geography in Ohio, and I have to go where the jobs are.  That being said, my time in Ohio is ticking, and I will not be around to see most of the impacts of this election.  Assuming that my vote makes a difference in these local elections, which statistically is more likely than federal elections, of course, should my opinions on the matter be included in the discussion, since I know I am about to leave?  I have specifically avoided involvement with local politics because I knew my tenure in this area would be temporary.  Is it fair to the residents here for someone to influence the results of elections, however small that influence is, for people who actually intend to live with the results?  Should someone who has no idea about any aspect of folks running for town council or township judge bother voting?  I just don’t feel comfortable with it.

Fine, so local elections aren’t my thing, at least not until I’m settled somewhere for a while.  Shouldn’t I still vote to influence the federal government, no matter how small my influence is?  Yeah, we’ve explored the mathematical probabilities earlier, so my influence is tiny, but it’s still there in its itty bitty form.  Okay, fine.  Let me expand upon my decision using the context of the current election narratives.

This is a year, more than any other, that should be a year for “None of the above.”  Now, typically, that’s a joke told by centrists and moderates who want to voice displeasure in the extreme ideologies embraced by the two political parties, or at least the broad failures of each party to get anything done.  In my case, I’m no centrist or moderate, but the theme carries through to a point.  I tend to side a bit more with the Democrats because they are slightly closer to my personal ideology, a far-left interpretation, than the Republicans.

The Democrats have had a majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate since 2007, and the presidency since 2009.  Despite what Republicans claim, there isn’t really one piece of legislation passed by these folks during that time that fits anywhere into my far-left views.  They haven’t ended the ridiculous and pointless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in fact, they’ve sent more military aid to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  They haven’t ended the idiotic discrimination against gays and lesbians in terms of marriage rights or the military.  They haven’t stepped up to boost funding in education, or to end poverty, or fight homelessness.  They haven’t implemented a socialized healthcare system.  Any of these agendas, they could have passed with their large majorities, and they did not.

President Obama has been little help as well.  I strongly supported the man in 2008, volunteering time to campaign, hoping that his election would bring the progressive incarnation of Ronald Reagan.  If anything, he’s been the center-right version of George W. Bush. He mostly sat on his hands during the gulf oil spill, looking like a total fool –echoes of Dubya reading My Pet Goat on 9/11 or golfing during Hurricane Katrina.  He’s triumphed a healthcare reform bill that wimped out on the changes necessary to truly promote universal coverage.  He’s drawn down the mess in Iraq, but sent more troops to Afghanistan.  Seems pretty center-right to me, even though as my friend Jen reminded me, most conservatives think he’s a socialist.

Why not vote Republican, then?  I agree with them even less.  The juvenile and hypocritical nature of the members of that party is so disgusting that it’s not a club I would ever want to even be marginally associated with.  People are in poverty?  The Republican solution is to cut taxes for the rich.  BP is polluting the Gulf of Mexico?  Don’t fine the company, people will vote with their money… except that the consumer system is so complex that voting with money by avoiding BP stations only hurts local businesses, not the oil company.  Schools are crumbling?  Well, that’s the fault of the people in that district for being poor.  Don’t like what Obama is doing?  Call him a Muslim (which shouldn’t be considered a pejorative term, ever).  Call him a Kenyan.  Call him a terrorist.  Call him a socialist.  Call him Hitler.  We need some oil?  Let’s invade the Middle East.  Yeah, I can’t deal with these clowns.  I’d rather set my voter registration card on fire then give them my votes.

To review, my choices in 2010:

  • I could vote for Democrats, who have done nothing but waste opportunity the last four years, who give left-leaning citizens a bad name with their terrible center-right policies, and who fail to pass any meaningful legislation, allowing compromise to debone all agendas while holding all of the trump cards.
  • I could vote for Republicans, who are so morally opposed to anything I believe that just thinking of doing so gives me the creeps.

(In either of those cases, my vote has such a tiny chance of mattering that it’s ludicrous to spend much time on deciding which way to cast it.  So…)

  • I could vote for an independent or third-party candidate, which mathematically is nothing more than a waste of time.
  • Or, I could stay home, making a statement by refusing to participate in the system, by: a) refusing to allow my opinions to be expressed in a method that is nothing more than a token method of feedback; b) refusing to give support to either party because of their failures to represent the people; and c) refusing to throw my vote away on a third-party or independent candidate, a possibility provided solely to placate those outside the two-party framework.

You know, this time around  — and I never thought I’d say this, but….  that last option sounds just right.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

155 thoughts on “Sorry Folks, I’m Gonna Sit This One Out”

  1. Due to it being just past lunch on a Monday, my brain is at only half capacity. For my own sake, I am going to re-post my previous post, this time without all the grammatical errors. And one small edit, for emphasis.

    “Your mathematical analysis of voting annoys me on several fronts. Voting is supposed to make you feel good. It’s the one civic duty that’s easy to participate in and, for a day or so, helps you atones for all the other ones you don’t. If you want to feel insignificant, there are much better ways.

    I could spend the time and counter you point by point, detailing every nuance of the other side of the coin, get frustrated and worked up and then some, but what would be the point? Instead I’m going to sit back and enjoy the fact that you’ve made my opinions, my beliefs, my causes, MY vote – twice as important. Because if you won’t be voting, you’re not just statistically unimportant, you’re irrelevant.

    It may not be a perfect system, but as your mother would likely agree, this year you don’t get to complain.”

    1. Since you reposted, I went ahead and only approved the second iteration of the content.

      Regardless, while I understand your frustration with the way I looked at it — and I admit, there probably are problems, because I’m no political scientist — I do see some of your points as valid, though I don’t agree why. You say that “Voting is supposed to make you feel good,” and that’s something I certainly agree with… but I see that as a negative attribute of the system. To me, if the point is to make the public feel good and not to contribute on a mathematical basis to the decision-making apparatus, doesn’t that mean it’s just a method to placate a public who has no functional feedback mechanism?

      Point being, I’m tired of being told it’s not a perfect system. I’m tired of the system being broken, and I’m tired of participating in it because there is nothing better. So, I should vote just to participate in this broken system, despite the fact that no candidate shares my beliefs… Isn’t that a greater miscarriage of the system’s intentions than to not vote at all?

  2. Basically, I’ve been saying this for the past 5 years. The two party system is a failure. We need a strong third party candidate. And I don’t know when or if that will happen. The whole system needs a major revival. I didn’t vote either. Mostly because I have only lived in Kansas for 4 months and have no idea what politically is going on here, but also because I am just so disenchanted with the system and the parties and the candidates.

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