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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: The value of voting

Voicing your opinion

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Opinions

Earlier in the year, I asked my friend George why he never voted. George told me that he knew nothing about the political situation in our country and that his vote would be no better than flipping a coin. Intrigued by this answer, I asked him what he would do if he were forced to vote. George stated that he would either simply flip a coin or vote for his grandmother. At the time, I thought of this as a waste but I later realized that even a vote like this is important.

It all starts with the idea of the purpose of a vote. There is a popular misconception that the only valuable vote one could cast is a vote for one of the two major parties. For example, during the 2000 election, people who voted for Ralph Nader were derided by many pundits for “wasting” their vote. And yet you cannot really waste a vote. As long as you are participating in the political system and making your views known, your vote is valuable. Even if your vote is uninformed or even sarcastic, you are contributing to the political system insofar as your basic intentions are made known. If a million people vote for grandma, politicians will know that they are not getting through to the people.

But why bother going to the polls and voting for grandma when you could just sit in bed and watch X-Files reruns? What is the difference between not voting and voting for grandma? I would argue that politicians do not get quite the same message when you do not vote.

They believe you simply do not care enough to do so and they write off your problems as beyond their concern. Basically, if you do not pay a visit to the polls, the government has little incentive to give your needs any consideration. The strongest example of this problem in action is the extent to which college students’ needs are ignored by the government.

College student loans, for example, are the only loans given out which are absolutely required to be repaid. Students can find themselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, even if they drop out of college midway through; this debt hangs over their heads for years.

Advocates for college students have struggled unsuccessfully to organize substantive relief for this situation and I would argue that one of the main reasons for this is that college students do not vote in overwhelming numbers. The case in point is the opposite of the college student in the electoral system: grandma.

Senior citizens have their every whim catered to by campaigns because they vote in overwhelming numbers. The concern showered upon the senior population far outweighs the paltry dribble that has been leaked upon our own. Medicare and social security have been the crux of myriad campaigns while such subjects as subsidies for college education are often relegated to a back burner. I would posit that there is a clear correlation between the lack of attention we get and our lack of participation in the political system. Staying home instead of voting means tacitly giving your consent to the status quo and thus you have an obligation to yourself to get out and vote.

Going back to George for a second, even his flipping a coin would show up in the statistics for people aged 18-24 as a vote. When politicians see that more of the college population is voting, they will take notice and pay more attention to our problems (of which we have many). Specifically, if they see that we have the initiative to go to the polls and vote, even if only sarcastically, they will not write us off as quickly as they do. As long as they see we are voting, they will give our concerns much more merit and will try to win us over. In the status quo, my generation is an afterthought. Even in 2008, very little actual rhetoric was directed our way and as far as I can see, the results have matched the lack of rhetoric.

Even more fundamentally, however, I am going to reiterate the old argument about civic obligation.

In the end, I would argue that, as a citizen of the United States, you should participate in the electoral system. Voting is like jury duty or taxes or any other civic institution in this country – without it, the United States could not function. Now it is true that the system could run without your vote but it will not run as effectively. The purpose of a democracy is to represent the voice of the people and when you fail to vote, you are depriving the people of a voice.

Regardless of my views on the political system as a whole, I believe voting is the most basic and most effective tool in influencing the government. And in a democracy, it is arguably the most significant action one can take.

So TiVo the X-files, get out of bed, and get down to the polling both this November – for grandma, for America, and for you.