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Between the Lines

To vote or not to vote?

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

With Election Day 2013 almost here, the communications channels overflow with pious messages from various political groups reminding citizens of their right to vote.

The strongest campaigns to push voters to the polls usually come in the service of political candidates and issues that stand to benefit from high voter turnout, but the idea that citizens have a civic duty to cast a ballot is a widely endorsed position. Standard-issue daily newspapers year after year run editorials advancing the importance of civic participation, while talk radio makes it black or white: if you don’t vote, you can’t bitch about the outcome.

I don’t buy a word of it. Although I cast a ballot in nearly every election, I surely don’t feel duty-bound, nor do I judge harshly people who, either because they don’t know or care about the candidates or they don’t want to waste the gas it would take to get to the polls for nothing more than symbolic gesture, choose not to cast a ballot.

Those who spout about civic obligations are quite often the very folks who are making political participation a most disagreeable and frustrating process. The world of politics is bloated with empty rhetoric. The so-called informed electorate, such as it exists, floats in a sea of bromides, hackneyed but reliable sentimentality used to conceal and obfuscate and manipulate. The spin doctors are everywhere, not just behind the scenes, but living inside almost every successful politician. If we didn’t know that before the government shutdown, we know it now.

Behind the screen, our democracy sinks deeper and deeper into trouble. Voter turnout, except in rare cases when a campaign gets played up as a true media event, continues to decline as voters feel more and more alienated and powerless.

Personally, I like to vote. I enjoy the ritual; I like seeing who wins, who loses. But I don’t vote in all races, and sometimes I’ve left my ballot blank altogether. While that’s one way to register a “none-of-the-above” with the vote counters, the few people who cast blank ballots are far outnumbered by those who don’t show up at all. Those no-shows are registered voters, people who have made some effort to participate. We can’t assume they’re lazy or, given that they often represent more than half of all registered voters, dismiss them as inconsequential.

In the end, the folks who don’t show up on Election Day probably fall into one of two categories: people who are so frustrated by the choices (or lack thereof) they can’t be bothered, and those who don’t care or know enough to have an opinion. I respect the position of the former group and feel grateful when the latter choose not to inflict their confusion on the rest of us.•

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