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Op-Ed: Think it’s righteous to abstain from voting when you don’t like the choices? Think again

Six curtained voting booths, all empty except one, where a voter is seen behind a partially open curtain.
Leaving a bubble blank on your otherwise filled-out ballot will register as an error, not political protest.
(Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images)

I am a slacktivist. I sit at my computer and fill out surveys and sign petitions. I write postcards and letters to potential voters and occasionally make a donation to causes or candidates. I get angry and disgusted on Twitter and post what I think are pithy, clever tweets in retort. I feel as if I’m doing something, making my voice heard, standing up for what I believe.

But the most important thing I do is vote. I often feel as if nothing and no one I vote for wins. A lot of the time, the candidate I’d most like to see on the ballot hasn’t made it to the general election — or never ran at all.

Still, I vote.

It is a right and a privilege my immigrant grandmother didn’t have for most of her life. I vote for her, and it is the most important political action I can take. As bad as the choices might be, I hold my nose and decide who or what is the “lesser of two evils.”

Voting versus abstaining is a standard philosophical debate, much like the famous trolley dilemma. You’re standing at a lever and a trolley is coming down the tracks heading for five people. If you move the lever, it will change tracks and run over only one. What do you do? Walking away and doing nothing is, as philosopher William James said, “in itself a decision.” Someone will die and you did nothing to save anyone.

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When you vote, of course, you’re not pulling a lever that will result in one or five people dying directly, but you’re making choices that have serious outcomes. By not voting you could leave people unrepresented and unprotected. Nonvoters are credited for Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Not voting had a definite outcome. “It wasn’t my fault” is a selfish argument when you could have made a choice for the greater good.

In a famous speech in 1964, Malcolm X had nothing good to say about white politicians, Democrats or Republicans. But he recognized the potential power of a Black voting bloc on the civil rights struggle and equated it with the power of revolution. He said, “It’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot. … It’s either a ballot or a bullet.”

That year saw the highest Black voter turnout ever in a presidential election — until the vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law the next year. It never would have happened under the 1964 Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.

But, say principled nonvoters, if you continually vote for the lesser of two evils, aren’t you just weakening a party’s incentive to provide better choices? Doesn’t voting for the least-worst candidate only perpetuate our sham democracy?

Think about it, though — has low voter turnout in one or another race greatly improved the slate of candidates we’re offered? Are people better off because nonvoters took their version of the high road? (Again: 2016. )

The “independent state legislature theory” would leave state courts, constitutions and others powerless to stop voter suppression.

Leaving a bubble blank on an otherwise filled-out ballot because you don’t believe in the choices will not register as a complaint as much as an error. A vote for a third-party candidate or a write-in might be marginally better, but that kind of protest could very well put the absolute worst choice into power. And, if you scribble through a candidate’s name in frustration, or pencil in a personal protest statement, you could end up with a “spoiled” ballot.

Protesting is a core value of America. Taxation without representation. Women’s suffrage. The Vietnam War. AIDS policy. Protest sparked progress on all those counts. In 2018, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., gathered 800,000 people in America and more all over the world in the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence. Their push succeeded in getting 50 new gun laws passed around the country.

So get out there and protest, but most importantly, vote. In the November election, your vote is your loudest voice. And, as my grandmother said, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

Diana Wagman, a contributing writer to Opinion, is the author of six novels.


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