Voting does not change the power structures in any given society. This is a general rule. The powers-that-be are typically so entrenched in the economic and political strata, as well as the mainstream culture, that the act of casting a ballot would not be able to remove them from rule, change hierarchies, and transform the big picture. There may be exceptions, you say? Well, I will not quickly disagree. I do not know all the history of voting outcomes in the world. But please feel free to give me examples. Even if there were some, I doubt that they will be plenty enough to be more than exceptions to the rule.
Yet, voting still counts. It actually impacts the lives of many who are caught in the middle of variances in policies favoured by competing groups within the larger ruling class (or classes). It also impacts the degrees of policies at other issues (such as policies around environmental degradation). Many a radical folk may not acknowledge that reality for one of two reasons: either they prefer to declare complete disconnect with the status quo and refusal to voluntarily participate in any of its dances (i.e. a ‘revolution or nothing’ approach), or they do not actually fall within the range of those who will actually be affected by the outcome of elections. The second reason could be so either because any outcome will be equally bad for them or because they will not have any different impact on them whatsoever–in other words, they are either screwed anyway or have a considerable privilege to afford to ignore the elections’ outcome for now.
My position, in short, is that voting is not a radical or revolutionary act; but it is a responsibility. I think that any legible citizen in a modern state where the minimum standards of systemic and open elections are satisfied, has a responsibility to cast a ballot. (p.s. If there is sufficient evidence that such minimum standards are not met, that is another story). I say that even if the citizen casts an empty ballot, or vote for a candidate whose winning chances are extremely slim-to-none. It is the act of registering, walking to the poll station, and casting a ballot, that is a responsible, civic act.
Here are the two scenarios:
- If the person believes that elections are not going to make a radical difference, that is not a sufficient reason to boycott it. We also know that peaceful protests, rallies and petitions will not change the status quo, but many of us participate in them yet still, and even organize them. We make our presence known and we train ourselves in the process of engaging the politics of the day with intelligent presence, and with both short-term and long-term thinking. Voting does not have to be a radical act for us to participate in it. If a responsible radical citizen does not find it outrageous to temporarily obey rules of private banks and insurance companies, pay their taxes to a government they do not trust, work for wage, and/or send their kids to public schools and encourage them to do well with the school’s curricula, then they should not feel too divided about voting.
- If the person does not fall within the category of those who will actually be impacted by the few differences in policies between competing groups of the same ruling class, they should at least think in solidarity with those who will be impacted. If groups of citizens and human beings do not show empathy and solidarity with each other in various social and political policies under the same system, how likely is it that they will show each other solidarity and empathy at the grand level of macro changes?
I personally believe that if paying taxes is mandatory, then at least casting a ballot should also be mandatory where possible. Even if I do not want to vote for any candidate in my constituency, I would support the act of getting up, doing the proper paperwork, and casting a ballot that says, “I give my vote to no one in this list.” That way at least I am making a stronger statement than staying at home. That way at least I am also now seasoned and prepared to actually give my vote to a candidate or party that may deserve it.
And of course, no, I do not think that voting for a particular person means endorsing them wholesale or accepting what they generally represent. It only technically means that given the limited options – as most things with life and especially with the modern state – I strategically choose one option over another. We do that almost every day in our lives, and voting should not be considered very different. Actually, perhaps it is because we think of voting as ‘choosing the package of your values’ that we make wrong decisions about it. In all practical terms, voting cannot be about a package of values or people you morally identify with; it is strictly about choosing between available policy packages. Even in better societies in the hopeful future, and with better policy packages, the nature of voting itself will remain the same.
I do not confuse between my long-term pursuit of transforming society and eliminating all forms of injustice, on the one hand, and one immediate responsibility of making use of my limited agency with the available options today, on the other hand. Additionally, I do not subscribe to the incoherent notion that the group or person I vote for ‘represent me’ as a person. They simply do not, because that is not what voting is about. If it ever so happens in the future that I cast my vote for a group or person that I feel truly represent me as a person, that will only be a pleasant circumstance, but not the ‘reason’ why I voted for them.