Live

Watch CBSN Live

Column: Nonvoting Can Be Legitimate, Informed Protest

This story was written by Bill Flanigen, The GW Hatchet


Sometime soon, I plan on buying some lottery tickets. I promise to donate all of my winnings after taxes to a few of my pet political causes. I'm doing this because, unlike most of you, I didn't vote this year. Fortunately, my potential winnings are far more likely to influence the government than all of your votes combined.

Choosing not to vote because I don't support any of the candidates -- and I didn't just forget to do it, I did choose -- hasn't made me very popular. I got a few raised eyebrows, some stern lectures and lots of incredulity. Mostly, people were just disappointed. They assumed that I was like other nonvoters: apathetic, uninformed and lazy.

I'm not exactly sure why people vote. It can't be because we think that our votes matter. If you do, you're terribly misguided. You and I are far more likely to win the Powerball with those lottery tickets than to cast a decisive ballot for the presidency in our states. Also, don't tell me that "if everyone thought that way" then no one would vote. Obviously, with two out of three potential voters having cast ballots in Tuesday's election, everyone isn't thinking that way.

Philosophers Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky have a more convincing explanation for high voter turnout. They call it "expressive voting" -- casting a ballot not because you believe your ballot will be decisive, but because it is a personally meaningful, public declaration of your beliefs.

Perhaps this is why so much emotional baggage is attached to voting. It fulfills a basic human urge to talk freely and be listened to -- an urge so strong that men have fought and died for centuries to secure those privileges as rights.

Of course, voting isn't the only way to be heard. Far be it from me to tell you that you shouldn't vote, but my choice to express my opinion through methods other than voting is just as legitimate.

I do express my opinion. I worked for an organization that lobbies Congress for prison reform. I helped to found a political organization on campus. I attend protests. I think, talk and write about politics every day.

In fact, not voting can sometimes be an even more potent form of expression than voting. Elections should be more than games of "Would You Rather," in which we have to pick from a set of equally unappealing alternatives.

In 1975, Ronald Reagan told dejected conservatives that "the significance of the election (of 1974) was not registered by those who voted, but by those who stayed home. If there was anything like a mandate, it will be found among almost two-thirds of the citizens who refused to participate."

Not playing along -- hoarding your vote as you might hoard food, money or your dignity -- can make a strong statement not of apathy, but of informed dissatisfaction with the system. That statement is just as strong as a "protest vote" for a third-party candidate, a write-in for Richard Petty or Edmund Burke or a "none of the above" vote. In fact, the only detectable difference between protest votes and nonvoting (assuming that, like me, you don't actually support any "protest candidates") is that protest votes kill trees and waste time.

I'm not offended when people vote. In principle, I see nothing wrong with it. Voting is a valid way to express our opinions, however impotent we each may be in the grand electoral scheme.

Take care, though, and don't be so hard on nonvoters like me. We're not so bad, and some of us are even doing our part to improve America: in my case, by playing the lottery.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue