As the 2020 presidential election nears, so, too, do conversations about whether voting is even worth it because “the system is broken” and “both candidates are bad.” If you’re a person who cares deeply about voting and the issues at stake in this election, this kind of talk can be hard to stomach… but in our electoral college reality, it can be hard to articulate why, exactly, voting actually does matter.
To answer the question of how to have a productive conversation with an apathetic voter, I spoke to Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, authors of A User’s Guide to Democracy: How America Works; Kim Wehle, author of What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why; and Brea Baker, an organizer and writer. Here are some things to keep in mind during these discussions.
Listen to the person when they tell you why they don’t want to vote.
Hearing what a friend has to say before you jump in with a response is simply the courteous and decent thing to do. But also, you can’t effectively persuade someone if you don’t know what their deal is! Any conversation where you’re trying to change hearts and minds needs to focus on the specific beliefs and personality of the individual you are talking to. (That means if they are just saying, “I’m not voting this year” without explanation, you should start by asking them, in a non-confrontational way, what their reasoning is.)
This is also a good time to ask yourself whether this person is looking to be convinced? Like, actually? If their mind is made up or they are clearly saying they aren’t voting in bad faith to get a rise out of you (and/or this isn’t someone you have a close relationship with), you should think seriously about whether this conversation is worth your time and energy.
So You Want to Talk About Race author Ijeoma Oluo wrote a good Twitter thread in June on the topic of arguing with people who absolutely do not want to be convinced, and all the better things you could do instead (e.g., make phone calls to voters who might actually be willing to hear you out).
Relative privilege plays a role here, too; if you’re, say, a cis white guy, you might not be the best person to lecture a friend who’s in a marginalized group about why they need to vote. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but you should be realistic about the fact that they might not want to hear this from you.
Think about why you, personally, are invested in whether this specific person votes in November.
As someone who has been very aggravated in the past by friends who have told me they aren’t voting or that voting doesn’t matter, I now know that I was mostly upset about the very clear difference in our values. I wanted to change these friends’ minds mostly because I wanted to believe that I was friends with people who did their civic duty, who understood that the right to vote isn’t a given, and who gave a shit about me and all the other people whose lives are meaningfully and negatively affected by elected officials.
If any of this resonates with you, it might be worth zooming out and asking yourself what this friend’s politics are like in general, and whether the issue of voting is, perhaps, part of a much bigger misalignment that you’ve been avoiding dealing with. You can still absolutely have this conversation with them, but I do think it’s helpful to know going into it that, for you, this isn’t just about voting.
When talking to most people who are resistant to voting because of how they feel about the candidates for president, “local elections though” is a great place to start.
Every expert I spoke to talked at length about the fact that we are voting for more than just the next president on November 3. “That is the most important thing to consider when you decide if you're going to vote or not,” Capodice said. “You're voting for your state senators and representatives, for sheriff, your local judges, your school board… all those jobs have an inordinately larger effect on your life and your family and your community than the president of the United States does.”
“State legislators are able to introduce a lot of local legislation that is able to be enacted much more quickly than what we think of when we think of a national party’s platform,” Baker said. She explained that a president will typically have one major issue they focus on—like healthcare during Obama’s presidency—so they’ll have less time to devote to other issues. But state legislators typically have multiple priorities, and that’s often who organizers are working with, or pushing for more accountability from.
What to say:
- “Setting aside how you feel about the candidates running for president, it’s really important to vote for all the other people on the ballot this year, because they have a huge impact on people’s day-to-day lives. If you’re not sure who is running, you can probably view your county’s ballot on Ballotpedia or your county’s website. And before I vote, I typically look into who [the Working Families Party, my local ACLU chapter, my local NAACP chapter, my union, etc.] has endorsed.”
From there, you can make it more personal by talking about the specific elected officials who have an impact on the issues your friend cares about, like so:
- “I know you have been really supportive of Black Lives Matter and ending police brutality; district attorneys and sheriffs are typically elected officials, so you should absolutely look into that in your county, and plan to vote for the person who is most interested in reform and justice… or isn’t, like, a known piece of shit.”
- “I’ve been really upset about schools reopening too quickly and worried about the safety of teachers and students, and I know you have too. A lot of these decisions are being made by local school boards, who are elected.”
- “You’ve mentioned a few times that you think it’s silly that weed isn’t legal, and right now, those decisions are being made at the state level, not the federal level. So it might be good to see which candidates on your ballot support decriminalization or legalization.”
- “You should look into whether your county has a Board of Trustees, because they manage a lot of financial resources. If you’re interested in things like alternatives to incarceration or better after-school programs, that might be who is in charge of the funding. And the board is often made up of people who run unopposed, and who sit in these positions for years.” (Baker said that “almost any issue that you care about will in some way be impacted by the decisions that that board makes.”)
- “I know you’re feeling like your vote doesn’t matter, and are disheartened by how difficult it is for a lot of people to vote, but that’s actually something that state and county officials control—things like voter ID laws, purging people from the voting rolls, how many polling stations there are, how late they are open, same-day voting, early voting, etc. So that’s a big reason to care about voting.”
- If they live in a state that’s got ballot measures, don’t forget about those: “I think [state] is voting on a couple proposals this year, and those are typically created by the people. So you should definitely research those and plan to vote for that reason, too.”
The importance of local elections is also a good way to speak to the “my vote doesn’t matter anyway” argument. The smaller the pool, the more your individual vote matters. “These elections can get really tight,” McCarthy said. “I’ve seen people win by just a handful of votes for seemingly small positions that directly impact your life every day.”
But also: remind them that voting for president does matter, even if they don’t live in a swing state.
Beyond that, McCarthy pointed out that even though your one vote means you’re “just a number,” that’s actually not a bad thing. “[Even] if your one vote isn't going to sway an election, what it is doing is contributing to the number of your demographic,” she said. “So ‘x number of Latinx voters between the ages of 18 and 25 turn out in x county in Wisconsin.’ You are adding yourself to that number, and the larger that demographic turnout ends up being, that is who those politicians are going to cater to.”
“So I say, go ahead and be disillusioned,” she continued. “Think of your vote as something that you're just sort of tossing into a pool if you have to. But what you are doing by tossing that vote into the pool is boosting your [demographic’s] stats.”
There’s also the fact that this election is not like the others. Throughout our call, Wehle sounded the alarm about how much voting in this particular presidential election matters. “I see this more as voting for an accountable democracy,” she said. “It’s a vote against authoritarianism.” Not voting because the system feels too broken, she said, “is like saying, ‘Listen, my arm was severed, but it's not worth going to the hospital.’”
“I also don't think people understand how dark it is on the other side,” she said. “I think they think it can't get worse. But it can get much, much, much, much, much, much worse.”
As Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, recently put it: “This is not a fire drill. We say every election year is important—this really is the real thing.”
If your friend tends to be pretty empathetic or aware of their own privilege, it might make sense to talk about the importance of voting on behalf of those who can’t.
This was another major theme that came up in my conversations with experts: So many people in the United States are disenfranchised, and are either not allowed to vote, or will have to jump through major hoops to be able to. Thousands of legitimate voters have had their names removed from voter rolls; according to an ACLU of Georgia report that was released earlier this month, nearly 200,000 eligible voters in Georgia have had their names removed. Meanwhile, felony disenfranchisement affects millions of Americans, and has a disproportionate effect on people of color, and Black people in particular. And restrictive voting laws heavily impact Native communities in the U.S.
Beyond that, voting in the United States is simply not easy for a lot of people. It’s not uncommon for people—and, again, often people of color—to have to wait in line for hours; to not be able to vote because of their Election Day work schedule; to lack the reliable transportation or childcare to make voting possible. And this year there are heightened concerns that “poll monitoring” might actually look like intimidation, and, of course, that folks at high risk for a serious or fatal case of COVID-19 won’t be able to turn out.
All this to say: if your friend can be reasonably assured that they’ll be able to vote safely and easily, that’s a huge privilege, and one they can use for good, should they choose to.
What to say:
- “Even if you don’t think your vote matters, there are a lot of people in the U.S. who feel differently, and who wish they could vote as easily as you can. So if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for them.”
- “To be honest, I find your saying ‘voting doesn’t matter’ really upsetting because voting very much matters to [me, my family]. This election is going to have a direct effect on [specific issues]; it bums me out that you don’t care about that more, that you don’t care about me more.”
- “I’m really disappointed to hear you say this, and I can’t say this isn’t going to change my view of you.”
Getting your friend to feel excited about voting for a specific candidate for president should not be your goal.
You’re allowed to believe that your candidate absolutely rocks and that the U.S. is the greatest country on earth, but you should also probably accept that not everyone sees things that way…. nor do they need to to cast a vote.
Baker said ignoring the flaws with a particular candidate can actually backfire. People don’t necessarily want to deal with someone who isn’t willing to accept their candidate’s (or party’s) flaws; that messaging doesn’t come across as genuine or rooted in reality. “I think people just want to hear that honesty,” she said. “It makes it easier for them to say, ‘All right, you know, I will do this.’ Name that for people so that they don't feel as jaded.”
If the person is feeling really disheartened about the state of the world and the upcoming election, encourage them to get involved in ways beyond just casting a ballot.
I will never forget the moment when, in mid-2012, I made an offhand comment to a friend who works in politics full-time about how I felt exhausted by the election cycle. “You haven’t done anything,” she replied, shaming me the exact right amount, without any sort of malice. “You don’t get to be exhausted. Go knock on doors or make phone calls!”
This friend knew very well that caring is good and voting is great, but helping other people vote (again, especially for local officials) is a necessary part of winning elections. (It also has the added benefit of really helping to offset feelings of despair.)
Here are some actionable things you could suggest to a friend who feels hopeless to the point of apathy:
- Sign up to be a poll worker (an especially good option if your friend is, uh, fairly bold when it comes to seeing people during this pandemic)
- Offer supporter housing (I’ve personally done this twice now!)
- Drive people to the polls (Google that phrase + your state to get connected to an organization)
- Make phone calls or send texts to prospective voters on behalf of a candidate they are rooting for
- Donate money to a local candidate who they feel particularly good about
Encourage them to stay involved year-round (and lead by example).
Change isn’t limited to general election years; it happens at city council and school board meetings and late-night legislative sessions. It happens when state supreme courts decide which cases to hear and police budgets are allocated. It happens no matter who the president is, or what party controls Congress. Now is a great time to learn the names of your reps, follow local organizers and reporters, sign up for a few relevant newsletters (and make a habit of reading them), start regularly consuming your local news, and set up a few recurring donations.
Baker said something to me during our call that I’ve been thinking about a lot since we talked: “I think Angela Davis said it perfectly: ‘Who do you want to organize against for the next four years?’” That is, organizers and activists and everyday people will continue to push for change, regardless of who is in office. A vote for the candidate whose views are closest to your own, and who will be most amenable to progress—whatever that means to you—isn’t a vote wasted.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.