by Kevin Currie-Knight
I became eligible to vote when I turned 18, in 1995. I first cast a vote for President in 1996 (I can say with some shame that I voted for Ross Perot, a misguided protest vote). I’ve voted in every Presidential — and most other — election(s) ever since…. except this one. In 2020, maybe the most polarized election in recent history – I did not cast a vote for US President. I’d like to explain my thinking.
First, I should say that even though I generally vote, I am used to not voting for a major party candidate and the fallout this brings. I tend to vote either for the Libertarian candidate, sometimes the Green candidate, and other times Independents. For that, I am used to taking it on the chin from Republican- and Democrat-voting friends. I often joke that I have Schroedinger’s vote: whoever’s horse loses, I will be blamed for the loss. If a Republican won, I will be blamed by Democrat voters for not voting their way. If a Democrat won, the opposite. (Their error, of course, is to assume that but for my third-party- (or in this case non-) vote, I would have voted their way. That’s often a bad assumption.)
To put it bluntly, this election cycle has disgusted me, and I don’t use the term lightly. The first reason for my disgust is that if Biden and Trump are the best two candidates our democratic processes can produce for the highest political office in the US, that says something damning either about our democratic processes or their participants. I cannot shake the feeling that voting for either of them would be to embrace an insult. The closest I can liken it is to being told by a careless and cheap boss that they will pay for dinner, being offered two options of cheap and disgusting meals, and having your grudging consent to one of them be taken by this boss as a sign that you value their magnanimity. (“Look, I gave you a choice. And you chose!”)
But isn’t one of these candidates truly the lesser evil? This time, no, and here’s my second point of disgust with 2020’s election cycle. When we vote for a candidate (in winner-take-all elections), we vote for someone representing a wide bundle of policies. Trump and Biden have various stances on foreign, immigration, trade, and regulatory policies, a host of “social issues,” and so on. It may happen that one candidate does line up with someone’s bevy of preferences on all these issues. But my own views on different aspects of these bundles don’t easily align with contemporary “left” or “right” very well. Each candidate comes somewhat close to my own positions on some things, but diverges — in equally problematic ways — from me on others. I can also say that as the years have gone on, the major party candidates on offer have been increasingly distant from my own favored positions to the point that I cannot vote for either in good faith.
Nor can I vote, as I often do, for the third party candidates. As time goes on, I am becoming more irritated at the sophomoric level of quality here as well. (I think this is less because their quality has gotten worse, and more because as the quality of major party candidates nose-dives, I become more disappointed at third parties’ inability — or lack of desire? — to run credible alternatives.)
My third area of disgust is how polarized and partisan everyone seems to be around what seems to me thoroughly uninspiring choices. Recently, for instance, we learned that Joe Biden has received the most raw votes than any presidential candidate ever. I have only anecdotal evidence here, but of the many Biden voters I know or have listened to/read, I know of none who cast that vote for reasons other (or larger) than that Biden isn’t Trump. Also, the political rhetoric around Biden has been that 2020 is the year we all, more than ever, must vote Democrat. So, all the fuss and all these votes for a candidate whose biggest selling point is about what he isn’t (Trump) than anything he is? I hope you can see the disgust I glean from this.
But shouldn’t I still suck up my disgust and vote for … someone? I know a lot of folks seemingly as disaffected as I who nonetheless suck it up and vote for the least noxious horse. After all, they say, a President will be picked regardless of whether I vote or not.
First, I must remind these people of what I said above: from where I sit, neither Biden or Trump is the distinctly lesser evil. Of course, everyone is incredulous when I say that, but they are incredulous in predictably different directions. Those who are Biden Their Time© can’t believe that I can be so blind to the obvious fascism and racism of this Trumpster Fire.© Trumpsters, meanwhile, are equally incredulous that I would be so naïve about Biden; how he is the Trojan horse that will usher in socialism and critical race theory to America, surely spelling the death of The American Way.© It is hard for me to take either admonition seriously when both come with equal and opposing certitude and force. I feel like the atheist watching every religion and sect say with full and equal confidence that theirs is the only God, and if you can’t see it, you’re just blind.
My second response to “You must pick… somebody!” brings me to why I have tended not to vote for the lesser evil in the first place. One way to vote is strategically, and this is what folks tend to do when voting for the lesser evil. You may like candidate C, but you have reason to think that few others will vote for C and C can’t win. So, rather than “throw your vote away,” to strategize by voting for the most tolerable or least objectionable candidate you think has a shot.
The other way to vote — and the way I’ve always understood what I’m doing — is to give sincere voice and endorsement to the representative you want to represent you. If C loses, then your preferences just didn’t carry the day. But if you vote B (the lesser evil), you will actually have voted for the candidate you didn’t really want to represent you, and your vote will (inaccurately) be taken by B and everyone who sees your vote as an endorsement of B.
I can’t say the strategic way of voting is wrong. One candidate does have to win. In some way, voting operates as a coordination game (done under the non-ideal conditions of secret ballots), where we all collectively decide the winner. But voting is also fundamentally about picking who we want to represent us, and I cannot feel good about voting, say, against Trump and having that be counted as a vote for Biden (or vice versa). For if I did that and Biden won, I’d still ultimately lose as Biden simply doesn’t reflect my policy preferences in any meaningful way. (Nor does Trump.)
Being a frequent third-party voter (and now a non-voter) has sensitized me to this tension within the American voting process. If we vote strategically for the “good enough and electable,” we cheapen the very idea of voting as a way to select the leaders we want. And we run the very real possibility of gaining results that fail to reflect people’s actual values. If we vote sincerely for candidates we truly like without an eye toward strategic electability, many of us will consign ourselves to “throwing our votes away.” I prefer the latter, even though I understand the shortcomings of the approach. But alas; it is democracy’s problem, not mine.
There you have it, my reasons for not voting for President in 2020. In full disclosure, I am worried that if 2024 and beyond looks anything like 2020’s election cycle, I might be staying home even more. But my vote, like my dollar, has to be earned. I will not give it lightly. And it sickens me to see how little most people’s recent vote seemed to cost.