By T.G. Blankenship at The Gethsemane Blog
My brother Stephen asked his Facebook friends, "Is it 'un-patriotic' to choose not to vote of there is no candidate you feel you can support with a clean conscience?" One of the responses that got a bit of support was "All I will say is if you don't vote, you don't have a right to complain about the results." I've often heard this argument. Sometimes people say "If you don't vote you can't say anything about the political system" or "If you're silent in the booth then be silent for 4 years." The basic idea is that if you don't vote then you don't have the right to bring criticism or complaints into the public square.
I think the notion that someone doesn't have the right to some form of public criticism of the political and social sphere because they don't vote is 1) illogical and 2) unpatriotic and should be discussed. Before I get into it, I just want to say that I'm not against voting in the least.
I agree that (on average) a person who is apathetic and intentionally removed from contribution to the social and political sphere doesn't deserve the ear of the rest of those involved in those spheres because they lack any context to make their input valuable enough to be of much profit. Also, with motives so selfish and lazy it is hard for them to produce a credible argument of any kind. Motivation of the individual is key in this debate. There is a great difference between the politically aware non-voter and the politically unaware non-voter.
Giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who make this claim, I'd say that they probably agree with most of what was just presented. Most don't really want a hard and fast rule that one must vote or shut up. Most want people to contribute. It's fair to say that if someone doesn't contribute they aren't worthy of the blessings of the work, but this issue is more complicated than that. This is where the big problem lies in this debate. The camp that says "vote or shut up" damages their position's legitimacy when it simplifies their view into a bumper sticker styled phrase. Sound bytes do not make for socially profitable discussion.
If we are persuaded that voting is the most powerful or even the only action [able to grant worthiness of voice] that one can take to engage in the social and political sphere of this nation then we have been greatly deceived. Voting is not what brings value to a person as a patriot or citizen. It is a small opportunity in which a citizen can participate if they so desire but it is not at all a yard stick with which to test their value as a citizen or patriot. That yardstick would more likely look like love. A good citizen takes care of other citizens and uplifts the social sphere of which they are apart. But even then, we're measure people's value in a limited and thus ignorant way.
We have to be able to recognize that voting is not the end all of political engagement. People can have a voice and make a difference without ever voting. We know this is true because there are numerous countries throughout our world both currently and historically which were not democracies or any type of system which used the means of popular voting (or electoral colleges). In those cultures we have seen many people make deep impact through social action, prayer, and speaking truth to power (and it is these three things which have legitimate grounding in scripture unlike the notion that one ought to vote for a president). In U.S. history we this is evident.
Voting is a right. A right is not an obligation. I don't have to carry a handgun. I don't have to have an abortion. I don't have to get married. I don't have to vote. None of these decisions should disqualify me from having a voice, even a negative voice, about these issues because I am a part of the social sphere and the political sphere affects that sphere and thus my life. In turn, that life and social sphere affect the political sphere. As a gear in the machine I always have a voice and when the other gears of the machine fail to recognize that the machine begins to slow down until it breaks down. The United States has made voting a right and not a forced obligation and the United States has made it a right to speak out publicly with political and social criticisms. In it's nature, in it's founding, the Untied States has absolutely said "you can choose to not vote and still complain, it is your right to do so." To disagree would be unpatriotic. To disagree would mean that one is pushing a legalistic agenda that is at odds with the values of the nation of which they are trying to raise support for. This position actually works against itself.
Voting for political change is an opportunity most people don't have. It's an opportunity to speak out in a confined capacity. It allows us to say yes or no to a limited amount of already decided upon options. Sometimes that's worth investing in and sometimes it's not worth investing in. If someone is convinced or convicted that the options on the table before them by the ruler is not sufficient then they are patriotic to abstain from making a choice between the limited options and crying out for something else, something better. It is wise for them to help create that option, putting their money where their mouth is so to speak (again, let it be pointed out that great change comes from more than mere voting). We can be thankful for authorities that grant us a voice and include us more intimately in the political sphere than many other nations, but that doesn't mean the voice they offer us is always good or enough. Sometimes it is not enough and sometimes it is damaging when we consider it to be our only venue of engagement or the options offered are insufficient for edification.
We must be a discerning people and not a simple-minded people who see in black and white alone. We have to be willing to say that the extremist notion that not voting should mean not speaking out is oppressive and against the very spirit of the gift of voting which was established at the onset of U.S. history. When we are honest we will be able to look at voting in the United States and conclude that it isn't the end all of political involvement, that it isn't a duty, that it can be abstained from without compromising someone's patriotism, and that it should never be used as the payment for one to have a criticizing voice towards the authorities of the nation.
If we are Christians, then we must especially agree with this because we know that it is God who leads us, provides for us, and gives us a voice. Our authorities are to serve God just as we are and they have given us nothing that God did not already give us and they have never given us more or as good a thing as God has ever given us. We can honor God, be patriotic, and edify our nation (which is a foreign land to us) free of guilt even without voting should we so choose.
At the end of the day, casting a vote among millions of others for one of two leaders won't do anything when compared to speaking truth to power boldly and consistently, working hard in our communities to improve the lives of our neighbors, and praying to the God whom all the authorities exist for, by, and through. When we look to God for direction and not our citizenship or political leanings then we can love our neighbor and their voice more than voting or any other national value or right. Vote or don't vote, so long as you don't step on a neighbor in the process.