Staff Columnist

Vote! But even if you don't, keep complaining

Yes, there are more important things than voting

I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It’s Election Day in America, and that means there’s a good chance you’ll be confronted with the rhetorical fallacy I most despise: If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.

To be clear, I definitely think you should vote. I always vote and I dedicate my work as a journalist to helping other Iowans become more informed voters. But even if you don’t make it to the polls today, I still want you to participate in our political discourse. Your right to complain comes from your creator, not from your voter registration.

What the zealous voting cheerleaders won’t tell you is there are perfectly rational reasons to abstain from voting. The most obvious is math. It is overwhelmingly unlikely any individual’s single vote will determine an election.

In millions of federal, state and local elections in American history, there are only a handful of one-vote margins on record.

Others choose not to vote because they don’t feel prepared to make informed choices. Government is complicated, and not nearly as transparent as it should be.

I have many friends who are more intelligent than me and are dutiful news consumers, yet they still struggle to make knowledgeable decisions about most of the races on their ballots. They often ask me questions like, why is county supervisor a partisan office? How might an average citizen assess the performance of their state treasurer? What is a soil and water conservation district?

Only 18 percent of likely voters think most Americans are informed voters, according to survey data published by Rasmussen Reports this year. I’m with the other 82 percent.

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The 15 minutes it might take to vote is nothing compared to the many hours of research voters must commit to cast a truly informed ballot. There’s a strong case to be made that doing almost anything else — working, volunteering, spending time with family — contributes more to your community’s wellness than voting.

Party activists are to blame for many of the political problems that frustrate casual voters. They impose toxic ideological purity tests, nominate bad candidates and defend deadbeat incumbents. These are inevitable functions of our partisan political system. When the election approaches and the general public is unmotivated by a slate of crumby candidates, it is these same party activists who aggressively shame their neighbors into participating.

Comedian George Carlin turned the “don’t vote, don’t complain” trope upside down in his 2001 book “Napalm and Silly Putty,” arguing it actually is the voters who have no right to complain.

“If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and you screw things up, then you’re responsible for what they’ve done. ... I, on the other hand, who did not vote — who, in fact, did not even leave the house on Election Day — am in no way responsible for what these politicians have done and have every right to complain about the mess you created,” Carlin wrote.

All of this is not to say you shouldn’t vote. You should! But if you don’t, you still will have to pay taxes and be subject to fines and arrest if you don’t obey the government’s rules. For that, you no doubt have the right to complain.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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