Tuesday, 6 November 2018

To vote, or not to vote?

As this Election Day in the USA has approached, I've been seeing more and more "Get Out The Vote" messages that argue (or, worse, don't bother to argue but rather presume as not needing argument) that voting is some kind of duty or obligation, and that eligible citizens "ought" to vote.

I think we need more, not less, discussion of whether or not to vote, and of the reasons people choose to vote or not to vote. And more people should have that choice. Non-citizens, people under 18 years old, people in most states (but not all) who are imprisoned or on parole or probation (which not infrequently continues for life) for felonies, and people in some states who were ever convicted of a felony, no matter how long ago, are disenfranchised by current state laws, and don't have a choice of whether to vote.

But telling me I have an ethical "duty" to vote is both wrong, in my opinion, and unlikely to persuade me to vote. I'm not trying to persuade anyone to vote, or not to vote, but here's my response to those who tell me I "ought" to vote, without first asking why I might choose not to do so:

I'm a political activist, but little of my activism is directed at electoral politics. Government decisions -- including legislative, judicial, executive, and administrative decisions -- are influenced by many factors, and are not solely determined by elections. I've been working against government actions with bipartisan support (war, conscription, restrictions on freedom of movement, etc.). This work will remain important regardless of who wins today's elections, or the next, or the next.

A central element of Gandhian political analysis is recognition that governments have less power than they claim, -- and as a corollary, that we the people have, as my mentor Dave Dellinger titled one of his books, More Power Than We Know. The ability of governments to do anything, including to do evil, is constrained by the people's willingness to carry out their orders. I resist participation in war not to opt myself out of participation in evil, but as a form of direct action to deprive the government, incrementally, of its power to do evil.

This article about voting began on a mailing list of war tax resisters. If we approach the question of whether or not to vote by analogy to the question of whether to provide labor for war by enlisting or submitting to conscription, or to provide money for war by paying taxes, then one place to start is by asking whether resistance to war is a duty or a right. It might be both, but not all things it is our right to do are also our duty to do.

Much of the discourse of conscientious objection to war (and, for what little it is worth, current law on conscientious objection to warmaking in the USA and many but not all other countries) frames conscientious objection as an ethical or moral duty, and posits that conscientious objection is a right only to the extent that it is perceived by the individual as a duty that leaves no discretion.

I don't define my war resistance as "conscientious objection", or myself as a "conscientious objector". I strongly oppose being labeled as a CO, and I strongly oppose those who try to define or label all war resisters as COs.

My war resistance is a choice, not a duty. As an atheist, an anarchist, and a pacifist (each of which, as I understand them, implies the others), I define my war resistance in anti-religious, not religious, terms. Similarly, I see neither voting nor not voting as a religious obligation or a "sin".

If war is evil and inherently illegitimate, how can resistance to war be a choice and not a duty? My answer is rooted in my anarcho-pacifism, which leads me to the conclusion that stateism, property ownership (enforced by the state), and other institutions of violence are so pervasive that almost everything we do involves a degree of participation in structures of violence.

I'm humbled by those who live their lives in ways that use fewer of the Earth's finite resources, and that involve less collaboration with states, property, and other structures of violence. But that doesn't mean that they, or anyone I can imagine, is living or can live a totally nonviolent life. And even if we could, opting out would not stop others from killing us and killing our future through climate change or nuclear war. Survival, sadly, requires active and not just passive resistance.

One need not be an anarcho-pacifist to see the state as per se an institution of violence. The conventional definition of political scientists is that the state is that entity which claims a monopoly on the right to determine who can legitimately use violence within a defined jurisdiction.

Voting is part of the process of determining how and against whom the state will direct its violence. Choosing government officials is choosing whose decisions will be "enforced", i.e, translated into the violence of the state and its agents. The "force" in law "enforcement" is violence, not just a figure of speech. Voting is not a nonviolent act. Some of the agents of state violence are called "soldiers", and what they do is called "war". Others are called "police" or "jailers", and what they do is called "policing". The rationalization of the internal violence of the state as legitimate (through divine right, social contract, etc.) is the domestic counterpart of the attempt to legitimate the external violence of the state through just war theory.

Participation in electoral politics or other government decision-making is collaboration with violence just as much as is participation in structures or organizations of non-state or anti-state violence such as those that engage in armed struggle for national liberation or other goals. To refer to those who choose electioneering over armed struggle against the state as having "renounced violence" is to reinforce a statist lie that obscures the violence inherent in the state, regardless of whether decisions of how to wield state violence are made by majority vote.

In that context, I see the choice of whether to vote as one of many choices -- including whether to pay war taxes, participate in military activity as a conscript or worker in the arms industry, or work in coalitions with individuals or groups that engage in armed struggle -- of how to relate to the pervasive presence of institutions of violence. When and how can what degree of collaboration or acquiesence be justified?

I'm not pure. I make some less evil choices, and I make some more evil choices -- out of fear, out of greed, out of shame, out of laziness.

I sometimes pay taxes. I sometimes vote. I sometimes work in coalitions with people who believe in the legitimacy of the state and its violence, or in the violence of property ("ownership" being legal entitlement to have the state wield violence against those who act against that state-defined ownership). I sometimes work in coalitions with people who believe in the legitimacy of using violence against the state.

I evaluate voting in this framework as a choice of lesser evils rather than as a moral duty one way or the other. Voting is always evil, but sometimes voting in a particular election may be the lesser evil compared to not voting.

The potential positive effect of voting is electing less evil officials.

The more certain (in my opinion) negative effect of voting is that it legitimates the state -- an institution of violence -- and, in the present-day USA, the system of ageist birthright-citizenship majoritarianism that is mislabeled "democracy". (My point with respect to birthright citizenship isn't that fewer people should have citizenship, but that more people should have political rights, an issue explored in depth in the work of Jacqueline Stevens on the basis of an anarcha-feminist critique of birth as the basis for political rights or denial thereof.)

My attitude isn't so much, "Don't vote, it only encourages them", as "Don't vote, it only makes others believe in the system". Claiming that voting is a "duty" greatly enhances that negative effect.

Making this balancing test, I vote only when I think that the probability that voting could affect the outcome of the election and the subsequent actions of the state is suffiently great to outweigh the certainty that voting will be taken as an endorsement of the legitimacy of the state as an institution of violence, and of its enforcement of ageist majoritarianism.

If you want to persuade me to vote in a particular election, start by acknowledging that voting is, in general, a bad thing, and give me reason to overcome the weight of that factor.

I am much more likely to vote for or against legislation than candidates. Here in California, we often have a couple of dozen initiative and referendum questions on each ballot, with the ballot summaries and texts of the proposals running to several hundred pages. State and local referenda and legislative initiatives are on ballots throughout the country.

Amendment 4 in Florida would enfranchise more than a million people, and is probably the single most significant question being put to a vote anywhere in the USA today. In 1984, I voted by absentee ballot from a Federal Prison Camp. That's another story for another day, but it was one of the most effective political actions I took while I was imprisoned. As a felon in California, I've had the right and have often made the choice to vote. But if I moved to Florida (or Iowa, Kentucky, or Virginia), unless Amendment 4 or similar legislation is approved, I would no longer have the right to make that choice.

But my voting isn't limited to legislative questions. Sometimes I vote for or against candidates, especially where it seems likely that votes in a particular election will be seen as votes for a lesser evil, motivated by exigency, and not as endorsement of the system.

As I've said before (in the context of Clinton v. Trump), if the thugs who are holding us hostage choose to amuse themselves or try to boost their image in their own or others' eyes by letting us vote for which one of them will stand over us with their finger on the button of nuclear annihilation for the next four years, I see no necessary immorality or inconsistency with pacifism -- and little risk that my vote will be misinterpreted as acquiescence to the kidnappers -- in raising my hand for whichever one of them seems least trigger-happy.

That voting is generally evil is, for me, a rebuttable presumption, based on the fact that voting necessarily involves collaboration with, and a risk of legitimating, institutions of violence. But saying that voting is sometimes justifiable doesn't mean that it is ever obligatory.

My bottom line is that I think it legitimate neither to criticize all those who vote, nor to criticize all those who chose not to vote. Those I would criticize, if any, would be those who choose to vote or choose not to vote, or tell me I should do so, without thinking about the implications of that choice.

Did I vote today? And if so, which candidate(s) or proposition(s) did I vote for or against?

As a matter of principle, of self-protection, and of protection of electoral rights, I won't say. I don't tell my friends who I voted for, I don't tell pollsters who I voted for, and least of all do I tell candidates, elected officials, or campaigners who I voted for.

We have secret ballots for a reason, although that seems to have been largely forgotten.

Literally the last person in the world who I would want to know who (if anyone) I voted for as President of the USA is the President of the USA. That's the most powerful person in the world, and the person with the greatest power to abuse their knowledge of who their supporters and opponents are. That was true when Barack Obama was President, it's true now that Donald Trump is President, and it will remain true whoever becomes President in 2020 or if Trump is impeached.

Secret ballots are under attack by campaigning that relies on databases of individual preferences, past and present, to predict future voting, allocate campaign resources, and determine personalized messaging. I want all entries about me in these databases expunged, but I can't even find out what information (or misinformation) is being kept about me. Candidates and elected officals' databases are exempt from any of the fundamental principles of data protection. But these are exactly the sorts of records, in less high-tech forms, that have been long been central to machine politics and its abuses: rewarding supporters with patronage and punishing non-supporters with denial of government services.

That's how it worked in Chicago when I lived there in the late 1970s, and how it works in too many places today. "You want a summer job for one of your relatives with the Parks Department? You want a permit for renovations to your house? Let me check my little black book and see how many hours you spent walking the ward for our slate in the last election."

Not enough? No job, no permit. "Come back when you've proved your loyalty. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

That's not the form of governance I want to enable.

When an elected official is making a decision or meeting with a constituent, I don't want them to know, or to be able to consider, whether that person voted for them, against them, or not at all, or whether or how much time and/or money they gave to them and/or to their opponent(s).

It's important to defend the right to vote secretly, just as it's important to defend and extend the right to vote in the first place.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 6 November 2018, 11:46 (11:46 AM) | TrackBack (0)
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