I don’t like being told what to do. I’m not sure if it’s something instinctive or a habit I picked up after getting picked on, but my issues with authority are something I manage on a daily basis, even as I try to foster them towards constructive ends.
That’s why I bristle at all the demands that I vote being made as the election cycle spirals ever downward. But something bigger has always struck me about the hollowness of those demands, about the soullessness of the get-out-the-vote efforts that characterize these cycles. What if the reason these requests feel so empty is because the people making them don’t really want us to vote?
There has long been a space between what I want to see change about our world and what I believe voting can accomplish, especially in presidential elections, but 2020 has heightened this. Right now, I see my political values reflected more in eviction blockades than anything coming from a presidential campaign.
Given that, the insistent pleas for voting, the rhapsodic waxing about playing your civic role in our democracy, the nude celebrities — they grind on me, especially as a part of a demographic that has made clear its engagement with electoral politics is quite low. As we saw in the first four and Super Tuesday 2020 Democratic primaries, there haven’t been enough young people turning out to exert electoral influence.
NBC News exit polling from 2008 found that voters ages 18-29 were 18% of the national electorate in the presidential election that year, leading the high under-30 turnout to be considered a key plank of the winning Obama coalition. In CNN exit polls from this year’s Democratic primaries, the under-30 crowd was only 13% of the electorate on Super Tuesday, the day that made it clear Joe Biden would likely become the nominee. As explored by NPR, Barack Obama’s support from the under-30 vote didn’t all carry over to 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Biden has youth support, but we don’t know yet if it’ll translate to turnout substantial enough to swing the election in any of the key states the election could hinge on.
So yes, many Democrats would like it if people under 30 voted for their candidate in this election, but they’re not going to prioritize a demographic with low turnout. And often, young people’s ability to vote isn’t really determined by Democrats — it’s determined by laws and agencies at the state and local levels. That means if your state, city, or county has GOP leadership, they might actually be the ones determining how easy it is to cast your ballot.
Regardless of party, state election authorities determine all kinds of things about how you vote, like your voter registration window, for example. (You can find out if you can still register here; some states let you register in-person on Election Day.) They also manage the infrastructure and there can always be technical mishaps with everything from online registration to the envelopes that come with your absentee ballot.
Whether or not people want you to support their candidate, the election infrastructure elected officials have provided for can only be described as a national disgrace. Sometimes, the bureaucracy of elections can feel intentionally discouraging, whether it’s in the form of confusing bureaucracy or long lines to wait in. On top of that, voter suppression is real. There are powerful forces that work to make voting more difficult and college towns are one of their favorite targets.
Sometimes, it feels like the difference between Democrats and Republicans is the difference between apathy and open antagonism to the simple act of someone like me voting. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that young people don’t have wealth that might translate into campaign donations. A generational wealth gap is overlaid on top of historical racial wealth gaps for generations that are more racially diverse and on top of historical gender pay gaps for generations of women more likely to join the workforce.
That complex tapestry of economic screwjobs is part of why I was so alarmed in June 2019 when Biden told a Manhattan fundraiser full of wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president. That’s a disturbing message for generations of people whose entire lives have been defined by economic recessions, climate disasters, forever wars, and other American nightmares.
That’s also why one of the most concerning outcomes of Trump’s personal bout with COVID-19 is his newly invigorated insistence on a herd immunity strategy. As the New York Times reported this week, the White House is now touting a pandemic strategy that would allow the novel coronavirus to spread among young healthy people in an effort to achieve herd immunity. If we did reach that point, it would mean all the young people stuck in jobs they hate, struggling to make rent but unable to afford homeownership, go back to work and try to scrape by. In other words, nothing would fundamentally change — except the presence of the virus.
What’s clear is that a great many things need to change — and quickly — for the sake of both basic human decency and life on this planet. Very few of those changes, unfortunately, are really on the ballot this year. We have a choice between reinvigorating a rapidly deteriorating neoliberal status quo or enabling an acceleration of our apparent descent into full-on fascism. That it’s even come to this is a sign of how f*cked we are.
So, why vote? Why uphold an obviously broken system, perpetuate a colonial empire founded on stolen land and built by stolen people? That’s the question that’s been eating at me for over a year now and I would never admonish anyone who doesn’t want any part of it. There are a million other ways to engage politically, to manifest your values in the material world.
I don’t want to be dismissive; there are real policy stakes in this election. But for me, one of the most compelling reasons to vote is the fact that it’s much easier for everyone in power if I don’t. Some Republicans’ recent insistence that we’re a republic, not a democracy, is more than just an argument about the two parties’ names. It’s a reminder that like nearly every other value this country has ever claimed to uphold, many of us are at best striving toward true democracy, even as people in power actively work to prevent that ideal from being realized.
Now, we have an authoritarian strongman at the helm. He is already seemingly scheming on how to win any legal challenges that might stem from the election, even as vigilante forces rally to his cause in the streets. A serious show of small-d democratic force at the ballot box in this election is a valuable demonstration of an appetite for elections.
It’s also a validation of the legitimacy of the government that’s elected and that’s why even people who don’t care about your future want you to vote for them. Elections are a legitimizing force for power and they’re easier to manage when fewer people vote. Nothing should ever be easy for the people in power, especially not validating their own authority.
We may not have a true democracy right now, but we should still show the powerful people uninvested in supporting elections or invested in ruining them that we want one. It’s not a panacea for everything that’s wrong with this world or even an effective bandage for much of the pain and injury people suffer every day. But voting in the U.S. is a chance to say that I care about what happens to my neighbors, to my family, and to people all over the world. It’s one way to do that and not always an easy one, but it’s something I’ll do even if it’s just to stick it to everyone who doesn’t want me to.
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