Posted February 24, 2016 by Cooper Point Journal in Letters & Opinion

Change I Don’t Really Believe In

The Case for Voting in an Unjust System

By Asa Kowals-Rose

I  was seven when I cast my first vote for president. It was Election Day 2004, and all the students in my elementary school were given a mock presidential ballot to fill out. I’m pretty sure I accidently voted for Bush, but this was an elementary school in the heart of Seattle, and Kerry won in a landslide. As I look forward to casting my first real vote for president in November, I firmly believe that it will have as great an impact on the future of the country as the half-sheet of paper I filled out twelve years ago. I am, nonetheless, an enthusiastic participant in the democratic process.

Presidential elections, frankly, are a sham. By the time the Election Day arrives, the United States’ two-party system has produced only two viable candidates for office. The ideological spectrum represented by these candidates is often quite limited, forcing voters to settle on a candidate who may not actually represent their views. This would be less of an issue if each party’s nominating process were fully democratic, but this is not always the case. Often, both parties’ candidates have all but been selected after only a handful of states vote; in the Democratic Primary, unelected superdelegates exacerbate this problem.

In the general election, the Electoral College makes voters in non-swing states politically impotent; one’s vote only helps a candidate win if that candidate wins the voters’ state, and means nothing if they don’t. As an independent voter in Washington State, my vote has virtually no chance of changing the makeup of the Electoral College, and therefore has little potential to affect a presidential race.

Despite this sense of futility, I refuse to forgo the most basic of my democratic rights. With nearly every part of the political process corrupted by entrenched moneyed interests, I relish my personal ability to make informed votes for causes of my choosing. No matter how much super PAC money has been spent in an election, I can ensure that my completed ballot espouses my own interests and values. I view this as a small but important step toward achieving a truly democratic government.

Aside from this symbolic value, making an individual decision to vote can actually affect the outcome of certain races. Whereas presidential races can only be swayed by a large quantity of voters spread across a few select states, state and local races can come down to a handful of ballots. I’ve always considered it an unfortunate irony that voters turn out for these races in even lower numbers than they do for presidential elections. Just over 60 percent of eligible Washingtonians voted in the 2012 election, but turnout dropped below 40 in the 2014 midterm.

That year saw three State House races decided by fewer than a thousand votes each; in this year’s elections, Republicans would only need to pick up two seats to gain a majority in that chamber. Likewise, Democrats would only need to pick up two seats to retake the State Senate. Furthermore, Governor Inslee is running for reelection this year. This could be an extremely close election: twelve years ago, Washington’s gubernatorial race came down to a mere 129 votes after multiple recounts. All of this means that it would only take a small electoral insurgency for either party to seize control of the State Government. For this reason, it is imperative that potential voters not let their disenchantment with presidential politics keep them from participating in other races.

Voting alone, however, is insufficient as a means to bring change. I agree with my editor, who argued in an op-ed last issue that electoral politics will not produce leaders with the capacity to stop the injustice and aggression perpetrated by the United States government. Fortunately, electoral victories don’t always depend on the integrity and influence of elected officials. Most states have at least some form of direct democracy, which empowers voters to affect policy without relying on politicians.

After all, it was Washington’s voters, not its elected leaders, who legalized gay marriage and marijuana in 2012. There are limits to what these types of ballot measures can accomplish, but they nonetheless empower voters to a degree. I see voting as a means of prompting incremental change, not the revolutionary agenda that would be needed to ensure real liberty and justice in society. Accordingly, I believe that the ballot must be thought of as the beginning, not the end of one’s participation in a democratic society.

To some radicals, refusal to vote is an important part of revolutionary politics, a necessary disavowal of the corrupt institutions we’ve been taught are our only recourse for addressing injustice. I disagree with the assertion that electoral politics have no place in this fight. What must be ensured, however, is that elections do not hinder the revolution by placating the revolutionaries; instead, they should galvanize mass movements.

Many Americans have little appetite for politics, but what they do posses emerges during election years like the one currently underway. Rather than let it pass uneventfully, it is incumbent upon activists to use this election to foster political consciousness and build strong coalitions. An organized and enlightened electorate with an enduring passion for justice can simultaneously work to strengthen democracy under our current corrupt system, and lay the foundation for more revolutionary action in the future.

This fact is borne out by the very nature of this year’s election. Recent attacks on voting rights notwithstanding, the ballot is eminently more inclusive in 2016 than it was in 1916. A decade before that, voters lacked even the right to elect their own senators; in 2016, citizens across the nation will elect 34. What won these victories for democracy was not an aversion to the ballot box, but rather a series of robust social movements whose members filled courtrooms, packed polling places, and marched through city streets all at once.

I concede that these movements have yet to rectify the fundamental injustices that have been ingrained in the American political system since its inception. However, if electoral politics had a place in battles for labor representation, civil rights, and women’s suffrage, then I see no reason why they should be excluded from efforts to democratize the means of production, eliminate poverty around the world, and put an end to all forms of imperialism.

I wrote this piece as a rebuttal to the aforementioned op-ed published in the previous issue of the Cooper Point Journal by our Editor-in-Chief, Felix Chrome. As I read and re-read her piece, I realized that I agreed with nearly every point it covered. Most of all, I agreed with her contention that not voting is hardly a product of apathy, but rather a conscious decision based on a deep understanding of the extent to which political institutions are fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.

What disheartens me about this decision, however, is that those who make it are precisely the type of people who should be voting. I believe that the insight that leads these individuals to forgo the ballot could also compel them to become the most judicious of voters. Electoral participation works best when it is checked by a persistent skepticism toward the political institutions upon which it is predicated; such skepticism helps ensure that political will doesn’t flounder after election day, but continues to grow from election to election.

In his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, Malcolm X does not advocate complete abstention from the electoral process; rather, he calls for Black Nationalists to continue their fight by more radical means if the electoral process fails to produce justice. It is my firm conviction that revolutionaries should not let the corrupt nature of the electoral system keep them from voting. Instead, they should use this year’s election to achieve small victories, and to grow support for the revolutions to come. I believe this starts at the ballot box.