Voting: a voice with two notes
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith


Around each election, there is an increase of media aimed at encouraging young people to register and vote. The theme of the pictured ad is that voting constitutes one's political "voice." In other words, voting is the only means of expressing one's political wishes. "Only you can silence yourself," the argument goes. The thought brings poor Jessica Alba to tears. Judging by what I have heard and experienced these past months, the concept of voting-as-voice is rather popular in America. My reading of Nekeisha Alexis-Baker's essay "Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination," in Electing Not to Vote has lead me to question the proposition that one's vote constitutes one's political voice. Therefore what follows is heavily indebted to her writing.

If voting constitutes one's voice, then our political voices are very limited instruments indeed. Here following I will suggest a number of reasons why voting is not a citizen's only political voice. Indeed, it is probably the least effective (and certainly least expressive) means of expressing oneself politically.

Voting is binary (or trinary, etc.)

Depending on what is placed on the ballot, the choices for voters are very limited. In the case of propositions, there is only "Yes" or "No." In the case of candidates, there can be anywhere from one to dozens of choices, but there is most often only a handful. So, to extend the metaphor of voting-as-voice: someone who votes has a voice which can only speak two words. Or, to use another analogy: voting is a musical instrument which can only play two notes. So what happens if I need to say something which cannot be expressed in only two words? What if I want to play Bolero instead of Hot Cross Buns? As Christians, I suspect this can come up quite frequently. One candidate might espouse certain Christian values while another might espouse others, and both might espouse some decidedly unchristian values. Voting by its very nature is limiting. Therefore it is problematic to limit our own political engagement by choosing voting as our only voice.

Voting is monolithic

When we vote for a candidate, we are voting not just for a person, but for that person's platform. It is like the infamous omnibus spending bills in Congress. We lack a line-item veto. In the current political environment of the United States, it is highly unlikely that a candidate could make it to the national stage with a platform (and personal character) which could be wholly embraced by a Christian in good conscience. So if we choose to vote for somebody with whom we do not totally agree, there is no way to express that in the act of voting. The vote is counted for that individual and there is no indication that my vote is not an endorsement of that candidate's embrace of abortion or war. If we want to express that our vote is not an endorsement of the monolithic party line, we must exercise our voices outside of the ballot box.

Voting is unqualified

When we vote, there is no space provided on the ballot to express why we voted for a particular candidate or proposition. This can be illustrated by an upcoming ballot measure in Oregon. It will create a state law to govern how long English language learners can in taught in their native languages in public schools. Some will vote "No" because they think this is a bad policy from the perspective of education. However, others will vote "No" because they think such determinations are best left to local school boards. And some (like myself) will vote "No" for both reasons, and a few others (including my dissatisfaction with the Oregon initiative process and with the sponsor of this particular measure). My political voice has a lot to say about Measure 58, but I cannot express it by voting. Only the "Yes" or the "No" comes through.

Voting is anonymous

Because we use a secret ballot in the United States, voting is anonymous. I understand the merits of this practice. However, it compromises the function of voting as one's political voice. After I cast a ballot, what I expressed is no longer mine. It has joined the great cacophony of other voices, and cannot be traced back to me. Once it is gone, the candidates and pundits are free to interpret the anonymous results in any way they choose, since voting in unqualified and anonymous. My vote is no longer mine, so it cannot tell anyone anything about me or my opinions.


As far as political expression goes, voting is weak. In order to fully express myself politically, I must do something in addition to voting. Herein is the great irony of these ads. They themselves are a form of political speech outside of the ballot box. There are many ways to express oneself, including making documentary films, blogging, protesting, and the like. To think that voting is a sufficient means of expressing one's political opinions is to be guilty of not having a big enough imagination. Consequently, I do not regard non-voting as something to cry about. By electing not to vote, I can express my political ideas - my voice - just as clearly as someone who has voted, but without participating in the problematic institution of voting. As Electing Not to Vote has shown, there are many good reasons for not voting, ranging from problems of corruption to questions of allegiance.

I concur: "Only you can silence yourself." Voting is one of the best ways to do that.

Date: 2008-10-15 13:05