Why These Americans Refuse to Vote

Across the country, some Americans are so disgusted with the system and their choices that they're literally throwing their votes away.

Oct 19 2016, 4:40pm

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at a recent presidential debate. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In Nevada, residents are afforded a luxury not enjoyed by any other Americans: When they trudge to the polls next month, they'll have the chance to check a box that reads, "None of These Candidates." Nevada voters are statutorily entitled to signal their discontent with the entire array of presidential contenders before them by saying "screw it" and selecting that particular option. And it's not a joke—this ultimate "F you!" has actually won various Nevada state primary elections in the past.

One can only guess what percentage of voters would choose "none" were the option available nationwide, but there are some clues it'd find sizable traction: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most despised major party nominees in modern electoral history. But outside Nevada, there's no way to formally register your across-the-board disillusionment with the political system that produced them: You've got to pick Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or one of the third-party also-rans. (Or you could write somebody in, such as Fred Flintstone or LeBron James.)

Or you could just not vote.

This last option is hardly ever mentioned by serious people who analyze politics professionally. To them, it's a mark of shame: Not voting for one of the two major candidates is routinely decried as a fundamentally dishonorable course of action, as if by withholding the franchise one is forsaking the sacrifices of our war dead out of some misguided notion of aggrievement. If you don't vote, you are neglecting your sacred duties as a citizen of this great nation; in a September plea to black Americans, Barack Obama said it would be a "personal insult" if they didn't turn out for Clinton.

Yet there's evidence that fewer people are buying that narrative. The September before every presidential election, the pollster Gallup asks respondents whether they plan to vote, and this year, just 47 percent of people aged 18 to 34 say they "definitely" will—down from 74 percent in 2008.

"This whole obsession with, 'Your vote makes all the difference, and everyone has to vote!' is propaganda."
–Ron Paul

Frequently, the widespread lack of enthusiasm and/or desire to vote is portrayed as a failing of the voters themselves, rather than a flaw in the political system that has alienated them. But this is a fundamental misapplication of blame.

Former congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president three times—in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee and 2008 and 2012 as a Republican primary candidate—certainly doesn't begrudge non-voters. "If people don't think voting is worthwhile, they shouldn't vote," he told me. "This whole obsession with, 'Your vote makes all the difference, and everyone has to vote!' is propaganda."

That might sound slightly odd coming from a longtime politician whose professional status depended on winning votes, but Paul says his campaigns were always focused on proving that his arguments and ideas were sound and should be implemented, rather than coercing support from unwilling citizens. "Who cares whether they don't vote, other than the people who want an endorsement for the system of power, and want the public to believe they've done something very important?" he asked. "In a free country, you have a right to be apathetic."

One typical argument marshaled against the utility of voting is that your individual ballot won't decide the election and therefore casting it is a waste of time. While theoretically valid, that's more a matter of statistical abstraction than moral judgment. Most nonvoters I've spoken to have chosen that tact as a means of refusing to legitimize the political order as it's currently constituted.

A call I put out on Twitter yielded similar sentiments from people on the right, left, and everywhere in between.

One member of the US military currently stationed in Iraq wrote to tell me he had already sent in his absentee ballot. "As a conservative, I cannot in good conscience support either morally and politically corrupt liberals running, and [Libertarian candidate] Gary Johnson is quite possibly insane," he told me. So he simply left the presidential field blank, which isn't a good sign for Trump given that the voter is registered in North Carolina, a critical swing state.

"I'm writing in Bernie Sanders, and I do not consider it a protest or wasted vote," wrote one person in Maryland. "I'm abstaining from voting... and I moved to Germany because I don't want to be a part of the sideshow any more," wrote another.

Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee for president, acknowledges the rationale behind this kind of conscious abstention. "If people are being thrown under the bus by a political system as they are right now, I think it's hard to fault them for not wanting to vote for political predators," she told me. "The emphasis needs to be not on the voters who are the victims of a predatory system, but on this system which is making a mockery of democracy." (Stein will hold a livestream on Facebook during the final presidential debate Wednesday night, for those who think she might pose a viable alternative to such predation.)

None of the people I spoke to are declining to vote out of naïveté, or because they'd prefer to go to the movies on November 8, but rather because of a well-considered strategic calculus. Whoever wins next month, he or she will claim a governing "mandate" based on their victorious popular-vote total. Depriving them of votes and lessening this total will therefore weaken their mandate, these nonvoters say, and marginally diminish their ability to instate an agenda. Furthermore, if overall rates of voter participation plummet, it will confer a general sense of illegitimacy to the victor—that's no guarantee of any kind of meaningful bulwark against President Hillary or President Trump, but at least it's better than voting for someone you hate.

"I will go to the polls because my state has marijuana initiatives on the ballot. I'll vote down ticket," said one person in Massachusetts. "But I won't buy into this presidential shell game with the same asshole under each shell."

Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter.

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