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Opinion: Voting is Literally the Least You Could Do

Scott Woods Scott Woods Opinion: Voting is Literally the Least You Could DoPhoto via Flickr.
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If you’ve already voted, congratulations, welcome to democracy. If you’re waiting until Tuesday, again, kudos on participating in the formulation of your republic. If, however, you are on the fence about voting or have decided that you don’t wish to exercise your right to vote this time around, I’d like five minutes of your time here. Don’t worry: this will be a non-partisan rant.

I have little love for politicians as a species. I view them much like pet pythons: it might be okay to play with one of them at a birthday party, but you should never forget what they’re capable of.

We live in a country whose every inch is ruled by a minority party whose values largely reside on the losing end of every poll. We are presided over by people who enact legislation counter to a democratic process to retain their ill-gotten control, and will do anything within the letter of the law to remove every ounce of genuine democracy from that process.

Where the laws are insufficient (meaning, when the laws stop them from being able to do everything they want), they mobilize to change them. We are ruled, not by overwhelming patriots, but by the value loss leaders of democracy.

You don’t arrive at a reality like that by accident.

In the world of eligible voters there exist three basic positions on voting: 1) voting is a responsibility and privilege, 2) that you should vote because people historically went through great trouble to obtain the right for you to do so, and 3) that voting changes nothing and is a waste of time. These are the platforms that those of us who are allowed to vote –- those of us who have not been purged, disenfranchised or otherwise made systematically ineligible to vote –- fall into. We largely become either incremental reformists, pretend to be quality hawks, or give up on the dream of actual change.

I had to be talked down off the non-voting ledge a couple of years ago. Things were so bad, I couldn’t see any daylight between my ballot and reality. As a voting black person in America, I can tell you that even on our best day, when our turnout is record-breaking, we are always left with the socioeconomic scraps of America. We have always had to make do with political results that underwhelm at best and, more commonly, only seem to determine the rate of our destruction.

America’s default setting isn’t to do the right thing. It wasn’t even founded on doing the right thing. Legislation had to later be enacted to get even the Constitution -– the avatar of American self-definition -– to do the right thing. Left to its own devices America eats its young, churns its poor into mealworm, and allows the rich to skin the middle class for wallet lining as a matter of course. Black people across the country are being aggressively purged out of the system so openly that the problem is actually making headlines for once.

I am not one of those people who believe that if you don’t vote you don’t have a right to criticize. People who say that don’t understand how rights work. You always retain the right to criticize. Despite having installed a Rorschach test for a president, we aren’t Turkey yet.

What people who say that need to start saying is what they really mean: “If you don’t vote I don’t want to hear what you have to say about how things should be changed.” That statement has the benefit of being both more honest and fair. It allows both parties in that conversation to make educated decisions about how to deal with one another moving forward.

People that looked like me literally died for me to have the right to vote. Someone who looked like me braved country roads littered with armed and emboldened racists who lived entirely above the law, or worse, were supported in any effort they may have taken to squash those efforts.

Regardless of any political stance I might take, the least I can do in the face of such a legacy -– a birthright, even -– is to stand in line for five minutes at the elementary school a block from my house on the way to work once every couple of years and hit a few buttons. I don’t vote because it’s the answer to my problems. I vote because it’s the absolute least I could do and still maintain that I am doing anything at all about the problems I am constantly ranting about.

Let’s be clear: If all you do to address opioid addiction, crumbling schools, police abuse or a dozen other major social conditions is vote, you’re getting off light. We need to reprioritize politics in the scheme of the actual work it takes to solve these problems. Voting is a tool, not the answer. If you only have a screwdriver in your toolbox, you aren’t going to fix anything. If you’re serious about putting in some work then get yourself a hammer (power) or a crowbar (leverage) or a pair of pliers (ownership). But if you don’t want to be handy and just want to get in the game, voting is pretty much the least you could do.

Ultimately, politicians work for us. If you are a citizen, you’re their boss. Being on the ballot is their way of applying for the job you’re seeking to fill with your vote. It can be hard to see things this way. Installing politicians is a lot like having breakfast in a restaurant with bad service. When the wait staff is socializing and talking about how horrible their schedules are and neglecting your empty water glass, it can feel like you work for them. They get to your requests when they have to and there is every likelihood that the All-Star Special you ordered will have the eggs wrong. And because you are hungry or in a rush or just don’t want to cause a scene, you let their suspect service slide. Sure, it’s your money on the table, but at least you’re not starving. Besides, there’s always another restaurant. You’ll just go there next time.

Once politicians get in office they generally do whatever they want until they end up in a viral video getting yelled at in an elevator, or the critical Facebook post you tagged them in gets more likes than their picture at yet another ribbon cutting ceremony. In those instances, they become extremely amenable to the will of the people. The only other time we exert that much control over them is during an election, when they can’t stay out of our faces, trying to convince us they’ve been working as hard on the issues as they are on their campaigns.

For one day, millions of us have the opportunity to graduate from yelling at our television sets (and other electronic devices) to potentially changing the headlines. For a job we only have to show up once in a while to manage, you have to admit: it’s a pretty easy gig.

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