Voting Is Not Enough

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Voting Is Not Enough

Vote, but don’t stop there. Voting is important. Voting is sacred.

By itself, voting is not enough.

There are two constants in politics: votes count and money matters. Nobody mentions the second. But they love reminding us of the first.

Before I go any further, I need to confess that I am one of these people. I am “they.” I regularly question my non-voting pals on Election Day. But hectoring our friends is not enough.

We’re not a subtle country on our best nights. But our volume goes past eleven on Election Day. We never seem to need hints for the other important verbs. The daily business of American life zooms past without much hectoring: eating, sleeping, sweating, drinking, cursing, arresting, more drinking, fighting, spinning … all happen without encouragement. But voting requires special attention.

So for decades, well-meaning people have been reciting the “Voting is the Only Solution” mantra. And not just during electoral season. Every time Trump indulges in a new horror, every time he rolls another anti-choice advocate into the Supreme Court mausoleum, people indulge in voter-shaming. Every time he commits some sin in major or minor key; there’s a fresh round of talking heads trying to humiliate non-voters, or independents: How dare you not vote, how dare you vote for someone besides our candidate, you are the monster. It’s usually celebrities saying this, and it’s always nonsense.

Voting alone is not enough.

As an example, look no further than California. There, the Democrats have a super-majority. Have all our ends been achieved? Does California have single-payer health care? Certainly not. Have private prisons been abolished? Has mass transit become universal? Are the police limited in their authority? Has the economy been made fair? No, no, no, and of course not.

Parenting is about more than paying the bills, and citizenship requires more than pushing a button. Voting for progressives, even in large numbers, is not enough to get politicians to act rightly.

American political parties and political institutions exist in a state of inertia. Unless continual pressure is exerted on them, they will not swim to true north. Our parties and civic institutions must be compelled to goodness, by forces outside of voting: organizing, protest, and demonstration. Democratic virtue means using levers of power which extend beyond the ballot box.

Every shred of evidence worth having tells us advocating outside of the voting booth results in overwhelming, appalling success. Ask yourself: What did inside-baseball, transactional politics win us? Answer: Chuck Schumer moist-toweling the Trump judges as they whooshed by in the night.

By contrast, what did non-voting means get us?

Off the top of my head: The Civil Rights Act, Women’s Suffrage, The Tea Party, the Bernie Revolution, the Reagan Revolution, the Trump Campaign, Stonewall, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement – and who could forget, the Science Circus. I made up that last one, but you were ready to believe it. Each of those movements changed our world. In every case, the official order of things was severely monkey-wrenched.

Sure, each of these movements were later sanctified by democratic elections. All of these movements were eventually established in power by a wave of electoral approval. But in each case, the movement began outside of voting.

Voting followed these changes. There’s a simple reason why. In most cases, elected officials were too compromised to take real chances. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail could never have been written on anyone’s official stationery.


Suppose you aren’t disenchanted by this news. Even if that were the case, our society is rigged to block the popular will.

The United States electoral system is set up to dissuade, disqualify, and block citizens from voting. Our government makes the process as obstacled as possible. As Sarah Jackel and Stuart Thompson wrote in their New York Times feature “The Myth of the Lazy Nonvoter,” probably only forty percent of Americans will vote in November. Some tongues term American voters as apathetic. However, they write:

... it’s more likely that most Americans do want to vote, and one of the root causes of low turnout is this country’s framework of restrictive voting laws. The United States is unique in allowing state laws to largely govern voting in federal elections. Ever since key federal protections were dismantled by the Supreme Court in 2013 – including portions of the Voting Rights Act, which required some states and localities with a history of discrimination to obtain federal permission before changing voting procedures — state lawmakers have had more latitude than ever to enact laws affecting whether, how and when one can vote in a federal election.

Who gets disenfranchised? Student voters, who live in new states. The working parent, who can’t get time off. The procrastinator, who misses their deadline. Convicted felons, who have the vote stripped away. The No-ID voter. And so on, and so on. The annals of American voter suppression are a compilation of all the dismal, backwoods-lawyer tricks statehouses can use to strip the ballot away. When you compare our Costco-studded republic with the rest of the world, the picture is even drearier, Jackel and Thompson write:

Voting in the United States sits in stark contrast to voting in countries like Belgium and Australia, where it is compulsory, and where voter registration is linked to national records and elections take place on a holiday or weekend. With those conditions for national elections, voting-age population turnout regularly reaches more than 79 percent.

Belgium, which has weekend/holiday voting, registration linked to national records, and compulsory voting, had a bone-liquefying turnout of eighty-seven percent in 2014. Sweden, which doesn’t compel its citizens to vote, still has national records registration and weekend/holiday voting. As of 2014, they had an eighty two point six voting rate. Those are Oprah approval numbers.


Any adult with working knowledge of this American life understands that most of the vital and vicious work of politics happens outside the voting booth.

Consider foreign policy. The Saudi Arabian government allegedly just killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident. Currently, Washington is siding with Riyadh. Tell me, where is the popular lobby for Saudi Arabia? There weren’t gigantic constituencies for the House of Saud in any Trump or Clinton precincts. And yet Riyadh exercises huge influence on our foreign policy. Did the people demand that?

Consider domestic policy. A majority of Americans want public health care. Why, then, is America in hock to private medicine? Because they run the store. Did the people demand that?

No rocket science is required here. Voting is necessary for politicians to win elections. But popular involvement beyond elections makes them nervous. That’s why voting has to be supplemented with political action.

Washington is right to be anxious. Read history. When American public opinion becomes agitated, change can erupt overnight. When incumbent politicians announce, “Don’t boo, vote!” it’s telling what they don’t say: Go form action committees. Engage in civil disobedience. Form unions. Agitate. Occupy. No surprise: those are the very acts required to change America.

Democracy is a word for what happens outside of the booth. Forget what the pundits tell you about respectable politics: your citizenship means nothing unless you make your voice heard outside of the voting booth, too. Nov. 6 is one afternoon, a sliver of a long calendar. There are three hundred and sixty four other days in the year. They’re the ones that matter. Votes are merely tallied; it’s The People who count.