I won’t be voting for Barack Obama this time. Not because I don’t think his opponent’s policies betray a reprehensible lack of compassion and a reckless disregard for reality. I believe they do. I won’t be voting for anyone, because between my county’s elections department and the United States Postal Service, my ballot disappeared.
It’s partly my fault. I’m registered in Clackamas County, Oregon, where I grew up. In Oregon and Washington, everyone votes by mail, which works well for most people. Oregon has excellent participation rates. Still, the system isn’t flawless. I started getting concerned when my ballot hadn’t arrived by the middle of October, but I felt sure it would appear soon, so I put off calling the county. Then the hurricane came, and by the time I called the elections department this week, it was too late for the department to mail me a ballot in time for the election.
Voter identification requirements aside, the system loses votes for all kinds of reasons. Voters mark their ballots improperly or forget to sign their return envelopes, and scanning machines malfunction. About 2 percent of the ballots cast in the 2000 election were not counted. Better technology reduced that statistic to 1 percent in 2008, but for absentee voters, the so-called “residual vote rate” is typically around 3 percentage points higher.
Should it matter that a mindless bureaucracy has deprived me of the opportunity to cast a ballot? Oregon’s electors will almost certainly go to the incumbent, and we don’t have a Senate race this year. In local races, an individual ballot carries far more weight, and good local governance is important for the quality of life in a community. A dedicated superintendent can make a school district an attractive place for young families and raise property values there, while incompetence in a city council can cause persistent unemployment. I want to keep voting in Oregon partly so I can help my friends and family at home reject inane and counterproductive ballot initiatives, such as mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
Still, if I were the rational actor assumed by microeconomic theory, I wouldn’t care. Voting would not make sense if the only reason for voting were to influence the result of the election. If an election is decided by any larger margin than a single vote, then the result would have been the same whether or not any particular voter had cast a ballot. For the individual voter, the cost of voting is simply too high, and the expected benefit is infinitesimal.
Even as the exercise of a political right in the abstract, voting unfortunately has little significance. It took political thinkers a long time to realize as much, however. During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass declared:
Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.
Douglass’s naïveté is infuriating in hindsight. Illiterate and without access to capital or credit, the freed slaves almost entirely failed to establish themselves. They remained in poverty, subject as sharecroppers to the exploitation of the more financially secure race. (Douglass later recognized the problem with his thinking.)
In the twentieth century, women likewise discovered that mere suffrage was inadequate to achieve the goals of the feminist movement. The capacity for political participation isn’t as simple as having the right to vote or not having it. It’s always been a matter of degree, and it has always depended on wealth, as is increasingly obvious after the Citizens United decision.
Still, I’m honestly pretty upset about not getting to vote. I’m as frustrated as I was in college when another hurricane stopped me from flying from my home in Oregon in time to join my classmates for the first days of our senior year. It wasn’t so much that I was missing the first few days of class and the first few nights of unrestrained collegiate debauchery. I was missing the all-consuming production sessions for the magazine I wrote for, when we would scatter pages of scribbled-over drafts all over the couches in an editor’s apartment. I just wanted to be there.
I think that’s a reasonable feeling to have, and I think something similar is the reason why we turn out to the polls. People don’t vote because they genuinely believe their ballots will determine the outcome of the election. When they vote, they probably aren’t thinking too carefully about their rights, either. People vote because they want to be a part of America. That can mean very different things to different people, depending on who they’re voting for, but everyone who votes has this in common: they really care about being American, enough to haul themselves to their polling places and wait in line, whatever else they’ve got going on that day. Perhaps voting is no more than a gesture, but if so, it isn’t an empty one. People vote because voting is an expression of common concern, of shared obligation, and of belonging.
If you despise both presidential candidates so much that you’re thinking about staying home (and I can’t really blame you if you do), just think about how you would feel if the post office lost your ballot. Then go to the polls and leave the presidential section of the ballot untouched—that’s a far more potent act of protest. While you’re at it, cast a vote in one of your local contests, where the result arguably has just as much of an effect on your life, if not more.
Don’t vote because many generations of Americans have fought for that right. Don’t do it because you think that by voting, you could affect national policy in a way that will make life better for you. Vote because somewhere, deep down, you’re a little bit patriotic, even if you’re not the type who is comfortable with overt, jingoistic displays of patriotism. Don’t vote because of what voting does, which is almost nothing. Vote because of what it means—which is that you’re still here, and that despite everything, you haven’t given up yet.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re a registered Democrat in Oregon under the age of 25, and your ballot mysteriously disappeared, let me know. I still haven’t ruled out a vast, shadowy right-wing conspiracy.