I remember the one time I didn’t vote in a presidential election. It was 1988, I was late into my twenties, and I’d pretty much figured everything out, politically at least. I’d actually worked in 1984 for the Democrat Party on the historic Mondale-Ferraro campaign in California and the experience left me drained, frustrated, and disgusted with politics. I’d seen things that had disillusioned me about how ugly and manipulative the process could be and it just felt like so much effort for, ultimately, a failure of a process. I vowed I would never vote for a partisan candidate ever again.
And in 1988 I didn’t, I simply didn’t vote at all. And that’s why I vote now.
You’re scratching your head.
After eight years of Reagan and thinking we were constantly on the verge of nuclear annihilation, the choice between Bush and Dukakis seemed like a joke; neither one seemed like a credible candidate and after what (then) felt like a tumultuous campaign season in the end it felt like a total coin toss. Of course in hindsight this sounds silly. Two future vice presidents (Gore and Biden) were angling for office, and there was the scandal surrounding Gary Hart, and for a touch of fire we had Jesse Jackson whose second-place standing at the convention should have landed him on the ticket but that honor went to Lloyd Bentsen.
And those were just the Democrats.
The Republican field eventually settled on Bush with Dan Quayle as his running mate, but Bob Dole, Pat Robertson and Donald Rumsfeld were in the mix as well. This was the campaign were Bush uttered the phrases “a kinder, gentler nation” and “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
And just for a bit of spice, this was the first time (I believe) Ron Paul ran on a platform of ending federal funding to education (and I was a public school teacher at the time!). And then there was the former leader of the KKK, David Duke, who wanted to end affirmative action and opposed all immigration and was basically pushing a Southern separatist agenda.
How the hell did I come to the conclusion at the time that this election didn’t matter?
So the election comes and in my own convoluted web of logic I decided I would exercise my right to freedom of expression by NOT voting! It was an act of political protest! HA! That would show them, they can’t insult me with their inferior candidacies!
Jump ahead two years. August 1990. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, an oil-rich ally in the Middle East. After condemning the actions and making noises for months about fighting back, Bush throws down an ultimatum and the US is poised to go to war. Protest was growing, slogans were already in place – No Blood For Oil! – and the day before the Gulf War began I decided to participate in the massive protests that shut down the Federal Building in San Francisco. I took the day off from teaching to do so and the next day when my students asked me where I was the day before, I told them.
“Mr. E, who did you vote for in ’88?” one of my students asked, perhaps suspecting I was originally a Bush supporter.
“I didn’t vote in the last election,” I said.
“Then why are you out there protesting? Seems to me like you gave up that right when you didn’t vote.”
And there it is.
It wasn’t an issue of whether or not either of us thought the war was justified, or whether my protest was justified, but purely a question of whether or not I had earned the right to disagree with the actions of a politician I couldn’t be bothered to support or oppose when I was given the opportunity two years earlier.
Of course voting isn’t a prerequisite for protesting or freedom of speech, but it suddenly became clear to me that I lost a fair bit of credibility complaining about the actions of a politician I couldn’t be bothered to vote against. It’s like being asked if you want chocolate or vanilla, saying “I don’t care,” and then complaining about the flavor you’ve been given. As the popular bumper sticker goes “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For the Other Guy,” except I didn’t even do that much, and so by extraction, it’s my fault after all.
I vote because it matters, because you can never know what history is going to dish out, and that it is one of the responsibilities of good citizenship. We don’t really talk about citizenship in this country any more, not like we used to, perhaps because it makes some people uncomfortable; there’s a very thin line at times between promoting citizenship and propaganda and I don’t know if the general public can tell the difference any more.
I vote because doing so makes me a part of the history I am living. It gives me a reference point for discussing politics with my girls who are growing politically savvy on their own, it connects me with the history they learn about in school and inspires questions and questioning.
I vote because not voting simply doesn’t make any sense. I can’t even look back at my twenty-whatever headstrong self and understand what I was thinking by not voting as a form of protest.