I was talking to a friend this weekend about the upcoming election. Like many of us, he’s angry about the state of our country and its lack of leadership, and I assumed he would be voting for Joe Biden with an urgency and enthusiasm that would bring other peers along with him.
As a 30-something, Ivy-league educated and wildly talented black man, my friend has an anger that is finely honed, sharpened by a life of unfair and terrifying police stops, a system that continues to codify systemic racism, and a government that doesn’t seem to want real change to happen.
Yet he shocked me by saying that he was not going to vote for President. He doesn’t believe in Joe Biden, and even though he likes Kamala Harris, he is thinking about leaving the Presidential box unchecked on his ballot. While clenching my jaw and trying to keep my cool, I asked, “Why?” He explained that Biden’s answers in the debate sealed it for him. He didn’t like that Biden appeared to repudiate the Green New Deal and refused to defund the police. He went on to describe how the system is the problem, and he doesn’t think Biden is the one to fix the system.
After arguing with him for 20 minutes, to a modest “I’ll think about it some more” outcome, I have done some research on my friend’s attitude. I have learned that it’s actually a very common refrain within the younger populations — both within minority AND white racial groups. These groups don’t believe Biden is “left” enough, and they think that he is only going to maintain the status quo in ways they want to see change. Here are a few tweets out there to demonstrate the sentiment:
“How do I talk to my 25 yr old son who didn’t vote in last election and has no plan to vote in this election because he doesn’t believe in either candidate nor in the ‘American voting system.’”?
“My 20yr old said to me the morning after the debate, ‘My name is Jeremiah, and after last night’s debate, I will not be voting.’”
“My 19 year old plans to vote but not for president. He said he hates Trump and Biden. I asked him about Kamala Harris and he said she is a liar.”
In 2017 I started Votergy and joined the board of Rock the Vote, because I believed that the low youth voting rates were a huge problem in our democracy. While we made gains in 2018, increasing under-35 vote share by more than 50%, and will see record turnout in these populations in 2020, we still don’t expect more than 60% of them will vote in this election. This is compared to the more than 80% of those over the age of 70 who will show up in this election. Since people under 35 are now the largest single voting block, this shortfall means that there is a huge gap in who is voting for their own future. There is a lot at stake, and I want to make the case why ALL of these voters should show up — even if they hate both Biden and Trump.
The first point: Voting is not actually about liking a candidate.
It is counter-intuitive, but the point of voting is only partially to pick who you want in this election. The point is so elected officials see that you are voting and have to pay attention to you when they are in office in order to earn your vote again. Politicians serve the people who elect them, and too often that’s special interest groups who fund their campaigns. If you don’t vote, you don’t exist in the politicians’ calculus in many ways — from focus groups, to polling about issues, to voter file monitoring. If you aren’t in the voter files as they poll their constituents on issues, your opinion won’t be counted. If you don’t vote, it’s as if you don’t exist, and the special interests end up winning. The research has shown that elected officials respond more to the desires of voters than non-voters. You need to vote to have a voice at all.
The second point: Powerful special interest and factional political groups know these facts, and you are actively being manipulated into NOT voting.
Voter suppression is more than closing polling stations and expunging rolls of people from the registration rolls. It is also creating false narratives like “your vote doesn’t matter” and “not voting is the best form of protest.” Don’t fall for it — by not voting, you are allowing them to keep their knee on your throat.
The third point: Abstaining from the vote isn’t going to fix the system — it actually makes the system harder to fix.
If everybody voted, the system would actually largely fix itself. To further make the point, imagine a world where nearly everybody voted. A huge number of problems would get resolved, because their overwhelming votes would demand it. To name a few:
- The majority of people in this country want to secure voting rights, fight climate change, and implement a more equitable healthcare system. If everybody voted, these ideas would become laws, because implementing these policies would be actions that would get politicians re-elected.
- Special interests would lose their power — they thrive by spending money to get voters to show up in greater numbers than the other side. If everybody voted, they would now have to convince the whole electorate that their cause is the right thing to do — a much harder and more expensive task.
- If everybody voted, politicians would know that if they didn’t govern for all of their constituents, they would lose their jobs.
- If everybody voted, a situation like 2016 where the President is elected with just 29% of the electorate would never happen again.
It will clearly be hard to get the electorate up to 100%, but getting the youth vote share up significantly will make a huge dent, and move us to a much more truly democratic system. We sent a man to the moon, we defeated the Axis powers in the World Wars. Surely we can all register and show up to vote.
The above points are true regardless of this specific election, and don’t attempt to pick a side. But the final point that I’ll make is one specific to this election and is more political in nature. Regardless of your opinion about Joe Biden, he has proven himself to be a decent person with a respect for our country and its institutions. We have been reduced as a society through the racism, bullying, lying, and general incompetence that we have seen over the last four years. Our form of self-governance works because people believe that it should work. Without this reinforcing virtuous cycle, we run the risk of devolving into an autocratic state that we never recover from.
Voting to elect Joe Biden, regardless of how excited you are about him, will send a message that we deserve better — and once he is elected, we can begin the hard work of building the system we deserve.
And because we voted, we will have earned the right for our voices to be heard… and heeded.