Politics & Race
In Defense of Not Voting

Hold up.

Before you dismiss the rest of this article as disrespectful to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and a sacrilege to the brave souls who gave their lives to acquire and protect our constitutional rights as citizens, let me say that I vote. I also believe Black people have a responsibility to participate in the institution that governs us and makes our laws. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and at its base is the concept of self-determination.

But among Black people specifically, there is a tendency to dismiss out of hand anyone who reveals that they don’t vote as ignorant, or having given up their right to complain. It is as if there is no intelligent, logical argument for the other side. We are sometimes so vigilantly steadfast in our opinions that we refuse to even entertain an open-minded examination of opposing ideas. The close-minded devotion to one-sided thought is an indication that either:

  1. Your ideas can’t stand up to scrutiny
  2. A symptom of unintelligence

Blind devotion without considering conflicting ideas is where religion comes from. It is the back door for bamboozling. It the toehold for stupidity.

I am admittedly invested in the political process because it has been both a source of my livelihood and entertainment. I sometimes write about it for money, and I keep up with it like a sport. Every morning before I leave the house, I try to catch the scores on Sportscenter (a show that has declined terribly over the years) and watch the political commentary on Morning Joe (a show whose drop in quality makes Sportcenter’s degeneration pale in comparison.) Politics is my second-favorite sport, after football.

Almost a year ago, while watching the referees make a terrible out-of-bounds call against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, a friend commented off-handedly “You know this is all fixed, right?” I tried to explain to him how fixing a professional sporting event is impossibly difficult given the number of variables. The referees couldn’t do it alone. One player couldn’t do it.  What if a player who wasn’t “in” on the fix caught fire? What if a referee had a change of heart? What if the team picked to win just had a bad night? He rebutted all of my criticisms of his conspiracy theory with one fact:

“If it wasn’t fixed, they would use instant replay. They would have multiple officials watch every disputed call. For whatever reason they allow two or three people to determine the outcome of a multibillion-dollar event with no oversight or appeal. Anyone who thinks that no NBA game has ever been fixed is stupid. And if one NBA game has been fixed, then they can all be fixed.”

I don’t know if he was right, but I understand his reluctance to believe in the integrity of the outcome of an NBA game.

That’s why I understand people who don’t vote.

know for a fact that politics is fixed. I choose to exercise my vote in spite of it. I know that there is no reason for the existence of the Electoral College except to overturn a popular vote. The Democratic Party designates powerful government officials as “Superdelegates” and allows them to choose  the Presidential nominee for one reason and one reason only–to overturn the popular vote. There is no universal, nationwide standard for voting machines. Almost every electronic voting machine includes a system in its program that allows the totals to be changed. There is no voter-verified audit trail (put simply, you don’t get a receipt for who you voted for, after you cast your ballot), remember Bush v. Gore? You can file taxes, pay taxes, bank and find a wife on the internet, but you can’t vote.

Anyone who thinks no election has ever been fixed is stupid, and if one election has been fixed, they can all be fixed.

Aside from vote-rigging, there is a legitimate argument to be made that our votes don’t matter to elected officials. Office-holders don’t care about the explicit will of the people as much as they care about money. 91% of the time the candidate with the most money wins. In 2012 the Senate and the House had a 15% approval rating, but 90% of the incumbents won. Corporations and lobbyists now openly write bills. Whether they pass or not is not determined by how popular the individual mandate is, but by the special interests that back the mandate. You can’t win re-election unless you have the money.  You can’t have the money unless you are funded by corporations. Corporations won’t fund you unless you do what they are paying you to do. That’s how corporations work. That’s how government works. They all talk about money in politics, yet no significant  campaign finance bill ever passes.

Given all of this, to some people, voting looks like the fruitless exercise of throwing rocks at a tank.

Not voting isn’t always a sign of ignorance or indifference. An intelligent person might have researched the fact that nationwide district gerrymandering has rendered the outcome of almost every election null. They might choose not to participate in a system that openly seeks to strip the constitutional rights away from people of color with Voter ID laws, felon-voting restrictions and pre-planned voting locations. A Black person in an overwhelmingly conservative district or state might analyze the cost-benefit and reach the reasonable conclusion–“For what?” When the system is stacked against you, it is understandable to extricate oneself  from that system.

While having drinks a few weeks ago, I was recently lobbied for my vote by a man who was running for district judge. He was a Black attorney whose father was a judge and I listened to him tell why we needed people like him in the legal system. I tended to agree, but as he explained himself to me and two of my friends (who are very intelligent, dedicated activists) one of them rolled her eyes and eventually tore apart everything he said. After he tucked his tail between his legs and stumbled away, I asked her why she was so harsh. I had just read an article about how white judges sentence nonviolent offenders to more time than Black judges, and believe that more Black judges are good. She responded how we both knew the political and criminal justice system is rigged against Black folks. She explained how dumb it was to search for a solution inside a system built to oppress, lock up and kill black people. Then she put it all into perspective:

“They’re just playing a game. It’s all a game. They know it’s a game.  We know it’s a game. The problem is–we keep playing the game, acting like it’s real!

I like the game, but I can understand that.


About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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