There is no such thing as a protest vote.

Naturally, I say I have a bunch of ideas for posts, and then I get really busy and go AWOL.  Sorry about that!  I’m also not going to write today about any of the things I talked about from RNA.  Instead, I want to talk about the election.

[Pause for groaning]

Listen, no, me, too.  I don’t really want to talk about the election.  Like most Americans, I really just want it to be over.  I haven’t been writing about any of the crazy stuff that’s come out of this campaign cycle, mostly because I felt like anyone who honestly believes that the US government should deport all Muslims probably wouldn’t be swayed by anything I could say.  But there is something coming up from my side of the culture wars that I feel like I can address, so with one day to go, I want to make the case that in the US system, there is no such thing as a protest vote.

Let’s break it down.  Protesting is a form of political action, usually used to call attention to failures in the existing system.  It’s also a pretty ineffective form of political action, it’s worth pointing out, because by its nature, it doesn’t create anything within the system.  So the most effective protests often call attention to a lack of access to other forms of political action – the classic example is the Civil Rights Movement, when people protested to highlight that they were being denied their right to vote or hold public office.  Similarly, #blacklivesmatter, probably the most effective recent protest movement, has garnered a great deal of attention, but has created only moderate political change, mostly in the form of federal investigations into local governments, which will need to be followed up by votes to replace those officials with ones who actually care about serving their entire population.

Protest voting, either refusing to vote or intentionally voting for a candidate who has no chance (or doesn’t exist) only makes sense if what the protest is calling attention to is that the voting system is a sham.  People in North Korea could protest vote – only the sitting Leader can run in elections and he wins with 100% of the vote.  Everyone in North Korea could vote for Mickey Mouse in the next election, and the outcome would stay the same, thus evidencing that the elections themselves don’t do what that claim to do (although this also highlights the fruitlessness of protest voting, as I doubt either the government of North Korea or the international community is unaware that North Korean elections are a sham).  Here in the US, though, we have a functioning, albeit imperfect, system, in which an open election that tracks a rough parallel to the popular vote elects one of two candidates, who bring with them two very different legislative platforms.  There’s nothing to protest because the people ‘protesting’ already have the thing they wanted.

Still don’t believe me?  Here’s responses to some of the standard reasons why people don’t vote.

1. I’m not voting because my guy didn’t win the nomination.  Okay, I wanted to get this one out of the way first because that’s not a complaint about the system, that’s being a sore loser.  There will always be a number of candidates for any open position, and for the Presidency, the shortlist will always be more like a dozen.  So unless you love the incumbent, your guy won’t be the nominee a lot of the time.  However, your guy had a platform, and there will always be a nominee who has a similar platform.  Vote for that guy. That way, the stuff you want to see changed may still happen.  Bonus, if they’re in the same party, your guy may get a cabinet position and get to enact change that way.

2. The whole system is rigged/everyone is corrupt.  Okay, so true fact, gerrymandering is a huge, unaddressed problem in this country, so who wins in the House or your state legislature may be the result of a rigged system.  However, you know who rigs that system? The House and state legislatures.  You want it to change, you have to elect people who will change it.  Second, let’s talk about the Electoral College.  The Electoral College isn’t corruption.  It isn’t even corrupted.  It’s a law, it’s public knowledge, and it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing (no, seriously, it is – even in the super-close Bush v Gore election, the Electoral College was eventually proved to have accurately preserved the outcome of the popular vote).  If people really thought the Electoral College was bad, we could change it.  It would take a Constitutional Amendment, but we could do that – we already did it once to change how the Senate is elected.  Again, the first step is to elect someone willing to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Electoral College. Email people’s offices, figure out who that would be, and vote for those people.

3. I’m voting for a third party candidate – they only don’t win because people think they shouldn’t vote for them!  Sorry, but it’s not the general population’s fault that third party candidates are never successful.  It’s the Senate’s.  Third parties develop in systems that have a single legislative house that is elected through proportional representation, like in the UK.  Thus, the Liberal Democrats can become of third major part in UK politics by strategically winning seats in Parliament, building a voting bloc, using that voting bloc to build coalitions, and then using the notoriety from those coalitions to expand their base and raise money.  However, in the US, this process doesn’t work.  Third parties could maybe win some seats in Congress – both parties work hard to control the most useful seats on committees, but with a lot of strategy, a third party could win a few.  But Senate seats open up one at a time, and to win one, you have to carry an entire state, which a third party is never going to do, and unfortunately, the Senate is where the really money is.  Trying straight for the Presidency is like running for CEO of Google after opening up a lemonade stand.  Presidential runs cost billions and go on for years, at this point, so no third party is going to have the stamina to make it.  Hell, even a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t make a successful Presidential bid as a third-party candidate, and he had incumbency working for him, arguably the most useful thing you can have in an election!  I’d actually argue that third party candidates know all of this, and the reason they go straight for the Presidency rather than building up the party in Congress is because they’re just in it for the free publicity, essentially milking the radical fringes of their own party for their own benefit while also, however unintentionally, weakening their side’s ability to win, but I can’t prove this.  Support the platform of a third party?  When it comes to the President, again vote for the major candidate whose platform is the closest to your party’s, and then vote for (or run as) a third-party candidate farther down the ticket in local and state positions where they can actually get something done.

4. But I don’t support either candidate!  So I think this is the most common claim right now for why people aren’t voting this year.  Colbert nailed it months ago by saying that in this election, everyone is just voting against a candidate, not for one, and I feel like a lot of people don’t feel strongly about either candidate.  If you’re in this boat, first, go check out this breakdown by Seth Meyers.  If that still hasn’t swayed you, then remember that the weird fact of American politics is, unless you’re in the armed forces and you’re voting for who will be your next Commander in Chief, who holds the Presidency doesn’t actually affect you all that much.  The legislative platform they bring with them can, but that has to be filtered through Congress and state legislatures.  But the chances are that there are state and local elections farther down the ticket that do affect you directly.  Do you have a uterus and want to keep your right to an abortion?  Most laws limiting abortion are being made by state legislatures, so check those out.  Do you have student debt?  The Democrats are within range to win back the Senate, and if they do, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have all but said that they’ll burn the entire outstanding US student loan debt.  Like smoking pot but hate getting arrested for it?  Legalizing marijuana is a ballot measure in several states, including here in Massachusetts.  The fact is that tomorrow, we vote to decide a whole lot more than just who becomes President.  But while you’re there – vote for the person running for President from the same party as the down-ticket candidates you’re supporting.  Why?  Because winning the Presidency makes winning local and in state elections way easier.  Whichever party wins the Presidency tomorrow will have a powerful, ready-made surrogate to campaign in two years, which is particularly important because people generally don’t care about off-year elections.  And in four years, that party can spend less on the Presidential race and more on state and local races because they have incumbency working in their favor.  So even if you don’t like the specific party candidate, help your local party out by electing an hugely successful, money-making surrogate to work for them for the next four years.

So that’s it.  There are no good reasons to protest vote in a US election.  That’s not to say there are no good reasons not to vote.  If you’re not voting tomorrow because you’re afraid of the repercussions of taking time off work (which legally you are absolutely allowed to do!), that’s worth talking about.  If you’re not voting because you can’t reach your polling place or you don’t have anyone to watch your kids or you aren’t physically able to wait in line for an hour or more, that’s worth talking about. If you’re not voting tomorrow because you’re afraid of intimidation from members of the extreme far right calling themselves ‘poll watchers,’ that’s worth talking about (also if you are, go here, find your local Hillary office, and call them and ask to be added to a Get out the Vote route – someone will take you to the polling place and make sure you’re safe while you’re there!).  But if you’re not going to vote tomorrow because you just can’t be bothered, please remember that someone fought and died for you to have that vote.  Maybe it was the Founding Fathers, giving up their connection to the British crown for a political experiment that no one thought would work.  Maybe it was the Suffragettes, chaining themselves to buildings and being beaten in the streets to demand votes for women.  Maybe it was the Civil Rights leaders who risked lynchings to see their voting rights honored.  Maybe it was the generations of activists who fought and continue to fight to protect immigrants and refugees who come to this country looking for a better life.  But someone somewhere died so you can have a spot at the table.  There is no good reason to simply walk away from that.

And hey, if you get stuck in line, Facetime your mom, and then call and make a dentist appointment, and that will be all of your adulting done for, like, months.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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1 Response to There is no such thing as a protest vote.

  1. Lee says:

    Are you sure? You seem somewhat uncertain.

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