It is that time of the year when we are endlessly told that voting is some kind of civic duty. Those who don’t vote often feel that their fellow citizens think less of them. The free thinker or nonconformist in me asks why. We don’t have a duty to vote in this country; we have a right to vote. The right to do something implies the right not to do it. Otherwise, it really isn’t a right at all.
We have a right to freedom of religion, but that doesn’t mean each of us has a duty to practice a religion. We have a right to free press, but that doesn’t mean each of us has a duty to start a newspaper. We have a right to freedom of assembly, but that doesn’t mean each of us has a duty to assemble. We have a right to own a gun, but that doesn’t mean each of us has a duty to own a gun (thank heaven).
I have decided not to vote as a way of protesting this constant (and, in my mind, wrong-headed) haranguing about everyone needing to vote. I believe this is consistent with the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau.
But there is more. I don’t believe that I have ever been in a situation where my vote on any local, state or national issue would have made a difference. Mathematically, the probability of my vote ever making a difference in any election of significance is so infinitesimally small as to be nearly zero. When I pointed this out to my daughters, they asked me, “Well, what if everyone felt this way?” I replied, “In that case I would go and vote.” Some might see this as being a sellout to my protest against voting. To them I would say, “Does every protest have to go on for a lifetime?”
For those who press the civic-duty issue, I say there are a lot of ways in which one can be a participating citizen of society. I have written several letters to the editor to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I like to hope that my letter writing has influenced more people than all my votes put together ever have. When I am asked by someone if I have voted, I like to respond by asking if they have ever written a letter to the newspaper. Most haven’t.
I ask them: Since they have the right to do so, why don’t they feel a duty to do so? They never seem to have an answer. I also tell them that there is only so much we can do in this life. We have a finite number of minutes given to us on this earth. The number of minutes invested in voting could be spent tutoring a child, or phoning a lonely individual in a nursing home, or reading a book. Who is to say which is the most valuable use of our time?
One might also choose not to vote because one is happy enough living with the choices others have made about who will lead us without feeling the need to get involved in the process of choosing our leaders, just as most of us are happy enough living with the price of butter without feeling a need to get involved in the process of setting the price of butter. There is a certain sense of social cohesion, I think, in accepting to live with the choices of others.
The voting fanatics always bring up the old canard that soldiers died in war so that I could vote. I respond: No, they died so that I could have the right to vote, and the right to not vote as well, just as they died so that I could have the right to attend church or not attend church.
Communist countries have been famous for 95% to 100% voter turnout. I don’t see such turnout as a sign of a healthy country but rather as a sign of an oppressed one. I choose to live and vote (or not) in the former.
Phil Kershner is the pastor of Marine United Church of Christ in Marine.
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