Saturday, May 03, 2008

Against Voting

Reproduced below is an article I wrote for the Brown Daily Herald about the progressive political efficacy of protesting elections in America. A friend of mine whose a grad student at Cornell tells me the article was re-printed in the Cornell Daily Sun in a weekly supplement that re-prints articles from the newspapers at other Ivy League schools.

Now I have my problems with liberal democracy as an institution, but in lieu of proposing a total revolution that would rewrite the American Constitution (I'm in favor of it, yes! But this goal seems more like the horizon of possibility of political action than a tactical, concrete goal at the moment) I think we need to take a hard look at the actual mechanisms that run our so-called democracy. We must have a massive reform of our voting system that (1) the abolition of the electoral college and direct popular election of the presidency, (2) the end of all 'superdelegate' or privileged party-member votes in the two national parties, and (3) the introduction of a multi-round run-off system that will allow for the emergence of real national alternatives to the two national parties.

I feel like the ending of this article is something of a cop out. Basically, I'm trying to reconcile with the fact that the fact that voting gives consent to an undemocratic system of government, and that the election of John McCain would mean the indefinite extension of the Iraq War. Frankly, I think that the end of the Iraq War is more pressing, and so perhaps it is a tactical compromise (and a question of priorities) to vote for a candidate who will end the war. Is this the best action though?


There is a lot of hype about the record turnout of voters for the presidential primaries this year, but no one is talking about how low voter turnout actually is. In Iowa, only about 15 percent of the eligible population caucused. In the past 35 years, voter turnout for national elections has been abysmal. In the past seven presidential elections, only 50 to 55 percent of the eligible population voted. If only half the population is voting, and if elections are a narrow contest between two opposing camps, as they inevitably are in a two-party system, then only a quarter of the population is effectively running the show. Sound like democracy to you?

Some will say that low voter turnout is the fault of a lazy, apathetic electorate. Liberal progressives will respond that the real issue is to find out why voters are apathetic, and blame apathy on poverty and government unresponsiveness to public needs. This position conceives of "apathetic" voters as purely passive, ignorant people who just need to be educated on how easy voting is, and assumes that no systemic change in our form of government is needed to revitalize democracy. For liberals, not voting is equivalent to not acting, and political action is synonymous with voting. Against this, I want to propose that the only truly political, democratic action one can take today with regard to elections is to refuse to legitimate a corrupt and undemocratic system by not participating in it and actively boycotting and protesting elections.

This is not to say that voting can never work. If elections were actually fair, then we would have an obligation to vote. But the last two elections have not met that standard. Given that people of color are still disenfranchised en masse and the will of the people can be overridden by the Electoral College, we have an obligation not to vote and to actively demand electoral reform at a Constitutional and local level. The Electoral College, which has four times in history overridden the popular vote, must be replaced by a direct popular vote. Early voting, which allows people to vote over a period of a month before elections, should be a universal practice for all elections to make voting easier for working people - currently, early voting exists in only 35 states. Finally, at the local level, we must work to make sure that early voting locations are open on weekends and are accessible to all citizens.

The most important voting reform for more democratic politics, beyond fair elections, is replacing our winner-takes-all elections with a multi-round run-off system. Every four years, American voters face the same dilemma due to the winner-takes-all system: "I want to vote for candidate X, but those stupid masses and the Electoral College make X unelectable." What we need to realize is that electability is not a real, objective quality that a candidate possesses, but a belief about a candidate that a voter projects onto her imaginary concept of the "stupid masses."

My wager is that neither are the "masses" stupid, nor is the concept of "the masses" as a coherent, homogenous, pre-given consensus anything but a pure, ideological fiction produced by politicians as "middle America" and by the media with its ceaseless opinion polls. Buying into the myth of "electability" allows you to publicly betray your beliefs (you don't vote for candidate X), fall in line with the ruling ideology and still be able to cynically maintain your sense of private purity ("My heart was in the right place!"). Winner-takes-all elections result in everyone practicing a kind of "second choice" politics that is massively repressive to any kind of original political thought. A multi-round run-off system, in which candidates are eliminated through a succession of rounds of voting until one obtains a majority, would do much to end the spell of "electability."

It would encourage originality by allowing candidates and voters to bring their interests to the table with less reservation during the initial stages. It would also result in more meaningful political compromises by forcing candidates and voters to work through issues together, negotiate compromises and form coalitions at each stage of voting, as opposed to candidates' policies and voters' interests always being compromised from the get-go in our current system.

This exegesis on "electability" demonstrates that it is not people who abstain from voting who are apathetic, but people who do vote when they know full well that our electoral system is corrupt and undemocratic who are truly apathetic, passive and apolitical. To the objection that voting is the only way to hold politicians accountable, I say that politicians are held more accountable if we refuse to play into the electoral charade that they hold over our heads to "legitimate" their rule. Some object that there will still be a president. If by "president" they mean a leader who governs by the democratic consent of the people, then they are wrong. Neither will there be one in 2009, nor is there one now.

However, whether we can afford not to do everything possible to end the imperialist war in Iraq is a very different question from whether we can afford to live a little while longer under this sham democracy. The real "choice between the lesser of two evils" today is not the choice between Clinton and Obama, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is the choice between voting and not ending the war.

Patrick Harrison '08 voted early for Obama in the Tennessee primary.