Non-voter numbers reveal a sickness at the heart of American democracy
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Truth be told, 2020 was an election I was dispassionate about. It felt like counterfeit democracy in a decaying empire, played out in shiny graphics amongst two parties too fundamentally similar to even falsify a promise of change.
The general mood in the US, however, did not totally correspond with mine. Compared to 2016, a record number of voters, from die-hard Democrats to those who “settled” for Biden, turned up to the polls to put Trump out of office. This growth should be encouraging, but the US’ general voter turnout is generally much lower than geopolitically similar countries – and that’s not incidental. It feels wrong to celebrate any result, good or bad, that’s borne from a system that, when you look closely, disenfranchises and disillusions.
An insidious, invariable feature in election discourse is to blame non-voters and critique the impact of their absence, and it’s easy to see why people claim that non-voters are privileged or apathetic. But it’s an intellectually dishonest simplification when there are numerous valid reasons why people choose not to, or cannot, vote. If there are significant numbers of non-voting citizens, there is something wrong with the functionality and legitimacy of your system, not the people.
Non-participation is a phenomenon tangled in the roots of American democracy. While voter suppression through the disenfranchisement of felons began in Britain’s colonies—America included— it was specifically cultivated in the post-Civil War South to target African-Americans, subsuming minor “misdemeanours” into a larger criminal framework. As the definition of the felony was aggressively expanded, literacy tests, which were not required of property owners, further deprived African-Americans and uneducated whites of the vote; some states continued to use tests even after the Second World War. Literacy tests were officially legal until a 1970 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, and were used in about eleven US states.
Today, disenfranchisement is synonymous with mass incarceration. The supposed ‘War on Drugs’ was a war on the people: a cruelly effective disenfranchising method as minor drug offences were manipulated into vote-stripping felonies. Consequently, the US has the highest population of incarcerated individuals worldwide. The carceral system – with its systemic racism and classism – cannot be divorced from the bigger picture. Meanwhile, we’ve probably seen colossal, hours-long voting queues online, and in rural areas, in-person polling stations are hard to come by. Voter ID laws and purges from the electoral roll also disincentivise and exclude voters.
Does voter suppression mean that voting must be radical? I don’t think so. As socialist organiser Alexis Isabel remarks, the practice is likely a result of ‘contradictions within the ruling class… it has little to do with our power to materially change our lives within the electoral system.’ We want material, not symbolic, change, but how do we achieve the former when every election exemplifies the latter?
The Electoral College originated in the need to appease slaveholding states; enslaved people built and maintained the White House; the entire self-conception of the nation is premised on genocide, subjugation, and expansion. Biden himself is one of the architects of the contemporary forms of racialised incarceration and surveillance we scrutinised and condemned in a summer of Black Lives Matter protests; Kamala Harris, Attorney General for California, was happy to roll out these kinds of measures against citizens. What vote within a system can overturn it?
These are entrenched symptoms that cannot be cured with votes, and many who choose not to vote recognise this. Florida, which has returned a Trump vote, also voted in a referendum to enfranchise paroled felons – but even this meagre concession from the state passed only with a multimillion-dollar campaign from figures like LeBron James and Michael Bloomberg. In blue California, voters rejected propositions to repeal the “diversity” ban and expand rent control, while Uber and Lyft poured money to successfully lobby against their drivers being recognised as employees with labour rights. The limited electoral potential for pro-worker progressivism can’t be relied on through party politics, and neither can we ignore how capital buys results.
We can’t let the aesthetic theatre of electoral politics distract or demobilise us. Voting isn’t our “privilege” or our “superpower”. No matter where we are in the world, we don’t have a “duty” to vote for politicians; it is their duty to serve us. The proportion of non-voters in the States tells me they’re failing.