I was recently contacted by Katie Herzog, a Seattle-based writer whose prolific work has been featured on a variety of websites including Salon, Real Clear Books, and Splice Today. In this instance she was acting as a social reporter for Grist, an environmental blog which describes itself as “making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse.” She wanted to interview an anarchist who chooses not to vote. Guilty as charged. Her request was simple. As she put it, “Try and convince me.” So, I provided a lengthy treatise on my decision not to vote. Unfortunately her editor is insisting that it be trimmed quite a bit before seeing it fit to publish. Editors… am I right? However, I’m the editor of this little sandbox. So, I can publish whatever I like, unabridged, so at least Grist readers might follow a link to the full content.
I used to vote regularly. The last time I voted was 2008. I was heavily involved in the Ron Paul Revolution of 2007. I donated hundreds of dollars, walked districts to distribute campaign materials door to door, ran a table at a local farmer’s market, attended rallies, spoke to virtually anyone who would listen, and I held my nose and registered Republican so I could vote in the GOP primary. I had been following Ron Paul’s career since 2003, and though I disagreed with him on issues like abortion and immigration, I was entranced by the black swan of a politician who actually spoke the truth, and voted consistently according to what he said, without exception. He was a champion of the three issues most important to me, and I’d argue the most critical to the future and freedom of America; end the war on drugs, end military adventurism around the world, and end the banking cartel known as the Federal Reserve.
What I saw during the GOP primary race proved to me that the system is rigged not only at the election level, but all the way to the primary level. In the GOP debates moderators would ask the candidates questions and skip over him so he couldn’t answer, or leave the other candidates’ mics on while he spoke so the audience could hear them snickering at him. Yet through all the mistreatment he calmly and plainly spoke the truth, standing out as the only honest candidate on the stage, and the audience saw through it. Ron Paul overwhelmingly won virtually every post-debate opinion poll, and yet every media outlet either mocked him when they reported the results, or completely excluded him from the poll results as if he did not even exist. Throughout the primary the GOP itself did everything that it could to marginalize him and his supporters. Virtually every state primary and caucus was afflicted with allegations of GOP rule breaking or even Diebold voting machine hacking.
Bottom line, the GOP primary process was not an honest race. The GOP establishment decided what kind of candidate they wanted, and did everything in their power prevent any disruptive change to the status quo. Before you think that this is a GOP problem, and not a democracy problem, the Democratic Party gave virtually the same treatment to Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, who were the truth tellers of the left. Even the Libertarian Party gave similar treatment to Dr. Mary Ruwart, who was the principled candidate in their primary, instead nominating Bob Barr purely as an appeal to mainstream conservatives. The parties, even the minor parties, are playing a game, and they aren’t playing fair. None of them are interested in an authentic democratic process, and none of them take seriously the desperate need for radical change. The result is a presidential race in which the parties put forward candidates who already agree on the most critical issues before the general public is even aware of the opportunity for a choice. The candidates really only differ on mostly superficial issues, so that the illusion of choice remains.
Honestly, I thought at first that Barrack Obama was different, and I seriously considered voting for him until those very last moments in the voting booth. I disagreed with him about far more of the superficial issues, but he campaigned on the right side of at least two of the issues most important to me. He campaigned unambiguously as a peace candidate, and he made a number of statements against the war on drugs, although it wasn’t a central issue of his platform. As far as I know he took no position on the Federal Reserve.
In the voting booth in 2008 I was faced with a difficult decision. Option one, cast my vote for Obama, a candidate I didn’t really want, purely for the sake of keeping Romney out of office. The lesser of evils strategy. Option two, write in Ron Paul, an act that would have literally no effect on the outcome, and probably wouldn’t even be reported anywhere, purely to assuage my own conscience.
I wrote in Ron Paul, but left the voting booth feeling utterly humiliated for having to beg not to fund policies I find truly evil, and powerless to affect any real change despite committing my fullest practical effort. That humiliation, combined with my utter disappointment with the first four Obama years was the emotional kick that convinced me not to participate anymore.
People usually assume that people don’t vote because they are apathetic, and I’m sure some are, but for me the opposite was true. When I made a conscious decision not to vote I immediately felt a desperate fire to find some action or strategy that might actually affect change. I explored civil disobedience, and tax resistance. I became self employed, both to maximize my personal freedom, and to take control of what causes I support and avoid. I wrote letters and engaged in boycotts. I signed up for the Free State Project, and got involved in Bitcoin. It was as if voting had acted as a pressure valve, and disabusing myself of the illusion that it made a difference forced me to find some direct action that did.
The catalyst for my decision was emotional, but there are a number of intellectual reasons for my decision which I had been struggling not to accept, but now do. There are specifically six.
1) The math
Statistically speaking whether I vote or not makes no difference on the outcome of an election. Being in California this is doubly true. No election ever comes down to one vote, but as we learned in 2000, even if it comes down to a hundred votes, or even a thousand votes, the result is intense controversy, demands for recounts, disputed results, and ultimately a decision made by the courts. So, even when an election seems so close it might matter, one vote is not even within the margin of error. Further, California is not a battleground state anyway. Libertarian views are such an incredible minority here there is virtually no hope of some kind of surprise landslide that needed my support. And if one occurred, well, it wouldn’t need my support. Also, because elections sweep east to west, often an election is already decided before California’s polls close.
2) My own Ignorance
In the past I have been a strong advocate of something called the “Read The Bills Act” which would require Congress to actually read bills before they vote on them. The recently passed spending bill, the so-called Cromnibus, is reportedly 16,000 pages long. Do you think anyone read it? California reportedly passed 930 new laws last year. Do you think Governor Brown read them before he signed them? Do you think he even actually signed his own name 930 times last year? The prohibitive length and number of these proposals means that they are chalked full of unrelated regulations and mandates that don’t appear in the summaries and commentaries of the proposals. This problem translates to voter initiatives, even when they are comparatively short. I realize many people are comfortable voting on propositions they haven’t actually read, but I’m not. The amount of time it would take to read and understand what I’m asked to vote on makes it virtually impossible not to vote out of ignorance.
3) I’m unqualified
Even assuming I’ve read and understood a proposition, or the platform of a candidate I’m expected to vote on, I’m still not qualified to make decisions about an entire country, or an entire city, or even another person. Does my local library need more funding? Was building a baseball stadium a good idea? Is Net Neutrality a good national policy? Would Jamie Matthews or Deborah Bress make a better Mayor of my city? Most of the time I honestly have no idea. How should I know? To wisely make broad and far-reaching decisions about an entire society requires vast amounts of inaccessible information. Sure, the teacher’s union says they need more money, but I’m willing to bet every single person that is taxed to pay for that increase would also say that they need more money. Who is correct? I’m not a central economic planner. I can’t predict and account for all the possible unintended consequences. I know many people are comfortable going into the voting booth and voting their gut, even if they’ve never heard of the candidate, but I find that irresponsible.
4) No refunds
George W. Bush originally ran on a platform of a humble foreign policy and no nation building. Barack Obama originally ran on a platform of undoing the worst transgressions of the Bush administration. As far as I can tell there is absolutely no correlation between what a candidate says, and what they actually do in office. When I go to a restaurant and order a grilled cheese sandwich, if they bring me a BLT I can demand a refund. Imagine a restaurant where they never actually served the items described in the menu. How would you decide what to order? For all you know you could order a vegan side salad and they could bring you a clubbed baby seal. I wouldn’t order food in such a restaurant. Sure, Obama looked like the peace candidate, and Romney and McCain both looked like war candidates, but who knows? When they’re all either lying to get elected, or changing their position when they see the political reality of the office, I can’t trust them enough to believe in a correlation between what I vote for and what I get.
My time is valuable, and scarce. It requires tremendous time and attention keeping even remotely informed about the available voting options. Not just the actual time spent voting, but the time spent researching the candidates and proposals. The more important the issue, the more time it requires. And the more enthusiastic or supportive I am of a cause the more time and attention it demands. There is an opportunity cost to spending that time. Time spent preparing to vote, or campaigning is time not spent another way, and often that investment is lost. If the election doesn’t go my way, I have nothing to show for the time and attention I spent. But there are many ways I could have invested that time which would not be lost, and could potentially accomplish more proportionally.
This is perhaps the most important, and most explicitly anarchist objection I have to voting. It’s subtle, and most people don’t see it, but once seen it cannot be unseen. Behind most votes there is a gun, if you scratch just below the surface. If you don’t comply with a law they’ll send officers with guns out to enforce them, and if you don’t cooperate with those officers you’re going to have a bad day. Maybe they’ll send you a letter first, but even that is a threat when the price of noncompliance is the same enforcement. For example, a vote to ban marijuana points a gun at pot smokers, sellers and growers. These are victimless crimes, and I don’t support violence against non-violent drug offenders. But to vote to legalize marijuana often involves passing regulations or taxes that are also backed by violence. Maybe you want a community playground. Are you willing to force those neighbors who don’t want it to pay for it against their will? Maybe you want to ban gambling in your community. Do poker players really deserve to be threatened with fines, or arrests, or ultimately physical violence if they don’t cooperate? You can seldom vote to put the gun down. You can usually only vote to point it at someone else.
Many anarchists support what they call “defensive voting” which is voting only to prevent violence. This almost always means voting on propositions, not candidates, because candidates always have platforms that include many positions on many issues. I don’t have any objection to this approach to voting, however non-violence is rarely on the ballot, and even when it seems to be I still have the other five objections to overcome. Sure a proposition may look like non-violence. But how do you know for sure? Have you read it? Do you have the time to read it considering how little difference that makes? And if it passes, and it doesn’t turn out the way you expected, do you get your vote back? I think not.