We tell ourselves that those that don’t vote don’t have the right to complain about the outcomes of elections, that they don’t deserve to have democracy work for them because they didn’t vote. Not only is this fallacious reasoning and a misdirection – it does not account for the totality of what it is to be a disenfranchised voter.
Perhaps we can begin to understand how it feels and a reason why someone might not be able to muster the will to register their vote.
We humans are a social people are we not? Wasn’t expulsion from the tribe probably the single worst thing one could do as punishment? Our world simply does not function without the cooperation and interconnectedness of our global and local society. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, internet – these are social inventions designed to bring us close together. Belonging, being valued, and having a meaningful place in our community are more important to us than practically any other commodity.
What happens when, in any number of ways, we take steps to thwart the participation of certain members of our society? We’ve done these things for centuries, perhaps not deliberately but no less effective to cutting off participation of those we deem less useful, desirable, or simply at odds with our sensibilities. Before the ACLU what did the handicapped do to participate? Were there ramps? Were government offices handicapped accessible? Were town hall discussions facilitated by a sign-language translator? Wasn’t simply going to the store, watching TV, interacting with the world just too much work?
If you really wanted to vote, you should have crawled up those stars to the polling place!
American culture’s deification of the car makes it an almost obligatory requirement to fully participate. Cars are very expensive, are they not? They require loans to purchase, and they will never be an investment, as they depreciate the moment they leave the lot. What do you do if you don’t have a car in America? Sucks to be you, doesn’t it? So if you are old, handicapped, young, poor, you find that there are barriers to your participation. It’s not that you can’t, but you have to try harder because society says so.
If you were black under Jim Crow, in many cases it wasn’t absolutely against the law to vote, but there were added provisions, obstacles placed before you. Poll tax? Special reading/writing test? If you were illiterate, if you were poor, if you were deemed just not quite qualified to vote, then you were shut out of participation. In many cases it was a secondary blow to self-esteem. I’m neither educated/smart enough nor wealthy enough to participate. They might take solace in the fact that the system was unfair, but I’ll bet it worked on their psyche too, making them feel that they somehow let down their families. The tribe told them their voices weren’t good enough – that they were not needed.
So they stopped trying, becoming disenfranchised.
If you are old, perhaps you no longer drive for poor eyesight. You’ve let your driver’s license lapse, or even if you haven’t, the state now requires that licenses comply with “Real-ID” Federal Standards. You haven’t updated yours. It requires someone to drive you across town to the government office. The law was passed but no one saw fit to put a small government office in your part of the city. If you want to vote, they say, do your duty and get or update your ID. It’s simple, they say, but it’s anything but simple for you as your son and your daughter are both working. The government office is only open to 3pm on weekdays. They would have to take off work to drive you across town and wait a few hours while your paperwork was processed. Didn’t cross your “T’s” and dot your “I’s.” You’ll have to come back another day. Your children are both okay, but struggling and can’t take the time. You might take a bus, except that you would have to walk 5 blocks and cross a busy street to get to the nearest bus stop. Call a taxicab? That’s $67.50 you don’t have.
So you don’t vote, and you almost don’t feel like you deserve to vote. Can’t pay for a cab ride, why would they want my vote, you think to yourself. I don’t count, nobody wants to hear from me. I’m old and the future belongs to the vigorous.
You are a student attending University in a new city. You are young idealistic and you want to participate in this new community. For many it is the first time they will be be involving themselves in a community outside of where they grew up. This will be the first time their direct agency will be exercised. But for locals, students represent a mass of voters many times at odds with the sensibilities of that same community. I’m sorry, you need a new state issued id to vote. You need to register your car in this state to vote. Your student ID is not sufficient, they are told. Most students don’t even have cars, and unless they really really care, probably also can’t come up with that same $67.50 the old woman didn’t have.
Voting day isn’t a national holiday in the US like it is other places (like Puerto Rico where participation is +90%). In Puerto Rico, we collectively say to the entire pueblo, “We think your voice is important. Please come register your voice. We want to hear from you whether you are young or old, dark or light, literate or illiterate.” In fact, as an electioneer, I have been witness to people signing the registration list with an “X.”
But in America, there is no national holiday. We really want to see how much you love this country before we register your vote. There are tests that try your economic status and your patience. If you are just making ends meet working an hourly shift, you might not be able to spare the resources. Sure, one might counter, the salaried employee would need to take off work too, but again, it’s a question of degrees. Equal isn’t always equal. In any case, if you’re too limited to take off a couple of hours to vote, then we don’t want to hear from you anyway. You’re probably not the kind of voice that matters to me.
So we have the poor, the minority, the old, and the infirm – the voices of society have told them in the most tacit of ways, don’t bother letting us know how you feel. We don’t really want your input. We will run this country how we wish to run it, and don’t worry your little head about it.
And so they don’t even try anymore. Their agency has been eroded. Society has told them they are unimportant, unnecessary at best, and unwanted and undesirable at worst.
Can you image yourself in that situation? Can you imagine what it feels like to have an entire infrastructure of culture in a myriad of ways, tell you that you aren’t important, that they don’t want you?
Sure, nobody is physically stopping you from voting, but why would you want to vote in a culture to which you don’t belong?