You have a civic duty to vote, sure. You also have a civic duty to complete jury service, to pick up litter, to take out your trash, to not drink and drive, to help your neighbor when you see them struggling, to give up your seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, to donate your excess to those who have less and to stand up and defend people whose civil rights and liberties are under attack. Voting is not the be-all, end-all of civic participation and I’m tired of hearing “remember to vote!” as a panacea to matters of life and death.
It’s not just a “vote out Trump and the Republicans” issue, either. Minneapolis, Portland and Kenosha all have Democratic local governments. Look back to the occupations of and state-enacted violence on Standing Rock and Ferguson — those occurred with a Democrat in the White House. Voting will not save us. Pretending issues of state-sanctioned violence, rampant anti-Black racism, suppression of migrant rights and attacks on fundamental First Amendment freedoms will all go away with the right party at the helm will not save us.
Sure, Joe Biden is a better candidate than Donald Trump. I won’t argue with that point because I agree with it. My issue, though, is being forced to choose between two candidates who inspire zero confidence in me. Being better than Trump is a low bar for Biden or any other candidate to clear and I’d hope that U.S. voters could hold candidates for the highest elected office in the country to slightly higher standards than “they’re better than the incumbent.”
And frankly, lots of people who are being told to “vote!” may not be able to do so in November. We have a pandemic sweeping the nation and an eviction crisis on its heels. Some percentage of those people will be dead and some percentage more may be effectively disenfranchised through loss of their housing come November.
Furthermore, voters at high-risk for COVID-19 are in a double bind this election in having to choose between potential infection by voting in-person or having to deal with the complicated web of mail voting regulations and potential postal service slowdowns. Research linked the Wisconsin presidential primary in April to a spike in COVID-19 infections in the state. And those voting by mail may have to contend with a patchwork of state-by-state regulations and looming threats to the very ability of the postal system to function.
That’s not even considering all the ways people are barred or discouraged from voting when the country isn’t gripped by a pandemic: voter ID laws, registration restrictions, overly broad voter roll purges, disenfranchisement of people convicted of crimes, gerrymandered districts and inaccessible voting sites. It is irresponsible and immoral to consider a system that excludes so many a perfect, or even workable, solution for civic discord.
Partisan, electoral politics on a regimented schedule cannot take care of problems now. Voting is part of systemic reform but crucially, voting still upholds the system.
Voting promises incremental change — think of the patchwork quilt of same-sex marriage legalization. That’s one of the quickest examples of voting and traditional politics ushering in major social change; it took a little over a decade from the first state legalization to the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell. Not every state held an election on this. Not every state who held an election actually voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Plenty of states had to be forced by court decisions. If you grew up in California, maybe take a look at Prop 8.
But incremental reform does nothing for people in crisis now. Incremental reform at the ballot box won’t help the person dying on a ventilator after catching COVID-19 at their minimum wage job they were forced back into, it won’t help the family torn apart by inhumane deportation and immigration policies, it won’t help the person who can’t afford to eat today because their disability benefits were cut, it won’t help the person who’s being evicted from their apartment in two weeks and has no way to find other housing. Incremental reform is great if you have the time and resources to wait for it — or if you don’t need reforms to stay alive and well.
But for those of us who do — and those of us who have done our civic duty of learning from each other and listening to those who can’t wait any longer — incremental reform is a pile of broken promises.
People can’t live on promises, especially broken ones. People need food, housing, medical care, safe neighborhoods, green spaces, education and a government and municipal system they can trust not to demean, harass, assault and murder them. Election after election, voting has proven to be less than useful at effecting change in those things.
And, to be blunt, voting once every four years won’t do much to get the attention of elected officials in the interim. Marching down the streets every night, occupying buildings, facing off against riot police and forcing officials to witness and address the horror their (in)actions have caused while the whole world watches — that is more likely to make a difference. (The revolution may not be televised but it sure will be livestreamed on Twitter.)
I don’t have a better solution at a government level. Plenty of people much smarter and with much more experience than me have tried and failed to come up with better solutions. But at a human-to-human level, I want people to question why society relies on voting as such a cure-all. I want people to have sympathy for and camaraderie with those for whom voting will never be an answer. I want people to refuse to reduce webs of oppression down to an either/or that can be fixed at the ballot box.
Voting is fine. Voting is a solution for some problems. Voting is necessary for a functioning democracy. (The U.S. isn’t a functioning democracy — our continued voter suppression, gerrymandering and patchwork system of voting laws and regulations prove that much — but I’m forever optimistic.)
I’ll vote this November because it is a civic duty. It’s just not the only civic duty.
But voting will not save us. No one solution will save all of us. Focusing on voting to the exclusion of other tactics is focusing on an ideal of a broken system to the exclusion of every person who that system declares expendable or a necessary sacrifice.
Donnie TC Denome CG ’21 is a Master’s of Public Health student and TSL’s managing editor for opinions and life and style. They lost count of how many unofficial rules for opinions style they co-authored and then broke in this piece.