Why Vote?

November 4, 2008 | 2 2 min read

Lauren and I were in line, probably about 50 back, at 6:45. By the time the poll opened at 7, the line stretched down to the end of the block, at least 200 people long. Friends and neighbors waved to each other and stopped to say hello as they worked their way to the end of the line. Plans for election-night get-togethers were made. At the cusp of South Philly and Center City, the group was a mixture of all ages and races. Many had brought along their children.

A couple of weeks ago, when Lauren and I were out to dinner with a lawyer friend and his wife, the discussion turned, as it so often has these last few months, to the election. Why vote? Our friend asked, when you know that it won’t matter. Elections aren’t decided by one vote, and even though Florida 2000 looms large in our recent history, close elections are exceedingly rare.

Our friend meant this more as a thought experiment than as an actual exhortation not to vote. If you vote because you want your guy (or gal) to win, and your vote alone won’t have a bearing on the win, then why do it? After pondering this over our dinners, Lauren and I came up with some answers. For Lauren, it was about community. In our fragmented culture, there are few opportunities to feel a sense of community, whether it be that of a political party or the more literal community of our neighborhood. And indeed, huddled with our sleepy neighbors on the sidewalk in today’s early morning hours, the sense of community was palpable.

My argument in our voting thought experiment of a couple of weeks ago was that if you don’t vote, your opinion carries no weight. You may have an opinion on the war, on crime, on schools, on taxes or on the hundreds of other issues that impact your life, but there are precious few opportunities to exercise those opinions in a meaningful way. Voting provides an outlet for those opinions, and one could argue that if you do not use your rare opportunity to act on your opinions, you are scarcely entitled to it.

Standing in line this morning, I was struck by another impetus to vote, one arguably more relevant in this election. As we waited for the doors of the community center to open, people hopped out of line to snap photos of the growing crowd. Walking the dog after we finished voting, we ran into neighbors and everyone chatted about the details of their voting experience, even though nothing particularly remarkable had happened — we waited in line, signed our names in the register, made our picks, pushed the “VOTE” button and left.

But we have so few opportunities to act on history rather than letting history act upon us. And particularly this year, when the election, and the moment, feels so historic, this sense of being a player in our great national drama is getting people out there to play their parts.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Generally, I don't have much use for Kant, but with the question whether or not one should vote, I find the categorical imperative inevitably comes to mind: If I think it's okay not to vote, I declare through my (in)action that it is alright for everyone else not to vote too.

    Here in So Cal there are lots of people who are pretty open about not voting–some who claim it doesn't matter because CA always goes Democratic: But it goes Democratic because Democrats show up at the polls every year. No victories are foregone, as this year's election may illustrate in states normally considered red that might go blue, like Virginia and Indiana.

    I get pretty enraged about non-voters because I think not voting says that no one else has to either. Democracy only works if citizens participate and voting is our most substantial means of participating.

  2. What is the point in bothering to vote for candidates in the U.S. anyway? Issues on the ballot I can understand taking the time to vote for or against for example if you live in California there’s a reason to vote for Proposition 19 if for nothing else to further expose the Obama administration as reactionary by its response to its passage. But for actual candidates? Total waste of time.

    After the Dems swept into power in Congress in the 2006 midterms on a platform of “Vote for us if you want to end the war in Iraq” and then refused to actually do anything to, you know, end the war in Iraq like cutting off funding for it by refusing to vote on supplementals that should have told anybody with common sense that they’ve been bamboozled. After Obama gets elected as a supposed “change agent” and despite a Dem majority Senate and House gives the American people a health care “reform” bill written by the big insurance companies and Big Pharma; after giving us a Wall Street “reform” bill written by Wall Street that does nothing to prevent their casino-like behavior; after getting a Nobel Peace Prize then immediately escalating the gas pipeline war in Afghanistan; after promising us a government of accountability then adamantly refusing to have his attorney general go after the war criminals Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, as apparantly accountability for torture, for the mainstreaming of police state measures with the Patriot Act and the starting of a war of aggression isn’t worthy of examining as he’s “moving forward, not looking backward”; as Obama has enshrined these police state measures and expanded upon them; and as Obama’s surrounded himself with an administration made up of ruling class pukes from the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg Group and A.I.P.A.C. what can a sensible, informed person conclude but that it is an exercise in futility to go out and vote? Why bother when all the wealthy ruling elite will allow us to vote for are obvious conservatives and thinly-disguised conservatives? That’s as undemocratic as Saddam Hussein’s elections but with somewhat more sophistication.

    Unless private money is taken completely out of political campaigns with each candidate instead getting an equal (but small) amount of public funding with campaigns lasting a couple months instead of a couple years the system will continue to be as artificial as professional wrestling. Candidates will continue to be nothing more than puppets of their wealthy corporate backers, answering to them instead of the average people of this country. Face it America: You don’t have a democracy. What you have is a dog & pony show every few years, designed to make you think you have a say in what kind of government governs you. It is painfully obvious that you don’t.

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