When a democracy doesn’t make voting appealing, something has gone wrong.
With less than a week to go before we know the result of the 2020 US Presidential Election, one hashtag is likely making the rounds: #VOTE! Indeed, as one of the most polarizing US elections draws to a close, parties and organisations from all over the political spectrum are deploying every strategy, tactic and media expertise to bring people to the ballot booth.
The action of voting forms the basis of our western democracy. Especially during a convulsed period like the one we’re living in now, where to have an accountable political class is vital. And yet, we must face a certain reality: in the US, almost half of the population will not be voting. Since the 1960s, there has never been an election in which the turnout reached 60 per cent, with the 2008 election coming closest when 58 per cent of American citizens went to the polls.
But who are these uncooperative voters?
Let’s proceed in order.
The reluctant ‘teenage’ liberal
One of the most belittled categories of non-voters consists of those who refuse to cast a strategic vote. The 2020 US Election is probably the event which has normalised the need for this action, with influencers and opinionists urging their followers to vote for Biden because he’s not Trump. However, there have been other occasions, such as the 2017 presidential run between Marie Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, where similar election tactics were applied.
Those who refuse to participate in these contested elections on the grounds that no candidate really represents their interests, are often considered to be privileged and selfish. The stereotypical caricature is that of a posh, liberal teenager who refuses to engage in politics until the perfect candidate, reflecting their elevated criteria, magically appears. What rarely gets mentioned here however, is that such people are also deeply concerned with the implication of reducing politics to a mere issue of convenience — instead of that of ideals. What happens, they ask, when we stop choosing politicians for their programmes and their stance on fundamental matters, and start choosing them instead because we fear the alternative? It is difficult not to foresee a decline in accountability when candidates know that to win a certain degree of support they need only to be identically different from their opponent.
It is a dangerous strategy to adopt and one that is not sustainable in the long run.
The minority voters
But there is another class of non-voters which is almost completely overlooked. These are the people who form minority groups and have traditionally suffered discrimination of some kind.
Particularly in the US, the conversation surrounding voting and discriminated groups is often focused on voter suppression, which is widespread in the country. From strict ID laws, limits on mail ballots, long queues due to insufficient polling stations, and many other oppressive practices, it is harder for minorities and poorer citizens to express their political voice. However, even amongst people who are traditionally oppressed by the conservative establishment, there is still a portion of individuals who deliberately choose to abstain from voting.
Some of them refuse to take part in the two-party system because they feel it has failed to bring any considerable change to their situation. Many criticise this choice, arguing that this prevents at least moderate change from taking place. After all, isn’t a temperate candidate like Joe Biden better than the volatile Trump for American minorities? And yet, when considering the widespread discrimination and police brutality against black, queer and indigenous people in the US, one can start to appreciate how deep the rage and mistrust runs towards state institutions.
Voting for a democratic candidate may bring some benefits, but it also means subscribing to a system which, largely through police brutality, causes hundreds of deaths per year.
How can one argue about harm reduction or choosing ‘the lesser of two evils’, when the consequences are so brutal? How can one advise people to ‘bite the bullet’, when doing this means participating in a system which is entrenched with systemic racism and transphobia, and responsible for countless inexcusable deaths like that of Breonna Taylor?
For indigenous people in the US, such arguments are even more straightforward. Indeed, many of them still see America as a colonial power which, no matter the administration, will discriminate and marginalise them. Such, ideas may be debatable, but indigenous people have one of the highest poverty rates in the US with alcoholism, diabetes, tuberculosis and suicide rates being among the highest in the country. During his presidency, Trump has shown an absolute lack of respect for native traditions and territories, resulting in such controversial projects as the completion of the Dakota and Keystone Pipelines — oppose by native communities and environmental activists. However, the Obama administration was not particularly decisive either. It only blocked the construction of one segment of the Dakota Access after months of protests. Simply put, this action has since been seen as a parting gift from an outgoing administration.
What’s eating America?
America’s problems lie in its state institutions and their incapacity to appear legitimate and trustworthy in the eyes of many American voters. Too often, the way in which the state interacts with minorities is through violence, negligence, or oppression. When the entire system appears to be set against you, it is increasingly difficult to see the silver lining of a Democratic administration. The case may look extreme, but in today’s America, rigged with violence and division, such attitudes are spreading fast.
The turnout on November 3rd will tell us what America has decided. In the meantime, we must pay attention to people’s reasons for not voting. Instead of spitting slogans or shaming the non-voters, America should take note and think about how it can make its system truly inclusive.