The line “If voting could change anything it would be made illegal!” is often misattributed to Mark Twain, and disputably attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman. The first confirmed appearance, if it matters, was from The Lowell Sun in 1974. Regardless of who said it, the phrase carries a sentiment shared by many Americans: Why bother voting if it doesn’t seem to affect anything?
Of course, one vote does have some effect — collect enough of them for one candidate or one party and a number of things change on the surface. In reality, however, policy is implemented differently, stalled or walked back; judges are confirmed or blocked; districts (in census years) are drawn to increase or diminish the power of certain voting blocs. These things feel less and less like the sort of change Americans across the political spectrum are seeking. It seems Americans increasingly identify with Julius Nyerere’s quip: “The United States is also a one-party state but, with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”
I’d point out that in a lot of ways, “they” are making voting illegal — especially in Michigan. Laws requiring addresses on photo identification to match voter registration addresses specifically target college students. Laws revoking franchise from felons prevent citizens — disproportionately nonwhite — from reintegrating with and participating in society and the closure of polling stations allow precise suppression of specific demographics. Straight-ticket voting — choosing a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single notation — can furthermore increase participation in down ballot races; unsurprisingly, it’s only legal in eight states.
On an individual level, voting doesn’t actually matter — hence all of the ink spilled over the paradox of voting. It’s also surprisingly controversial to say nonvoting is a valid affirmative choice as a statement of lack of faith in the electoral process, the party system and the people who make it onto the ballot. I do recognize, however, that many nonvoters aren’t choosing to protest, but rather are being intentionally alienated from the process.
The view that voter suppression — not voter apathy — is an issue seems to be catching on, surprisingly. There was a significant amount of petulant backlash in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, as liberals vented frustration at nonvoters, saying, “If only they’d voted with us, we’d have won.” In the intervening years, this vague outrage has coalesced into a project that might have some genuine effect and target an actual problem.
Corporations are signing on to voter turnout projects: everything from registration to transport and time off. It’s been hard to miss the online promotions, too, especially on Voter Registration Day (Sept. 25). It seemed as if every social media site — Reddit, Twitter, Discord, Tumblr — was running a banner ad reminding their users to vote or providing information about how to register. This level of interest from the business world is hard to understate — for whatever reason, corporations from Patagonia to Uber agree on the desirability of turning people out for the November 2018 midterms and are willing to spend money making it happen.
Many appeals to student voters especially rely on outrage: voice your distaste for Donald Trump, support marginalized people and enjoy the twilight years of democracy. I’ve been slowly convinced, despite deeply held assumptions to the contrary, that these negative appeals work — most people don’t actually need a revolution, and they don’t need a charismatic leader to rally around. A (debated) rise in negative polarization means for many partisans, spite is sufficient.
Voter registration drives and mobilization efforts, therefore, could just be a response to this shift; instead of inspiring people to vote against all odds, concerned parties are guiding frustration. Once nudged in the right direction, social media and news outlets provide momentum — a party or politician’s responsibility is then simply to ensure fewer people hate them than their opponent. The interesting part is, whether out of love or spite, we’re voting.
Innumerable column inches have been wasted wringing our hands over whether people are going to vote for the “right” or “wrong” reasons, missing the fact that suddenly more of them are voting, exactly as people have been hoping for so many years. It’s strange to yearn for the masses to have their say when they refuse to participate and then suddenly recoil when they step forward.
The GOP understands this dynamic (as usual) much more intuitively than Democrats do — suppress the other party’s voters, tailor registration laws to your constituency and reap the electoral reward. The Democratic mistake is looking at this as if it’s somehow distasteful — the Republicans are winning, but they’re doing it “the wrong way.” The GOP understands, though, that whether they lose out of incompetence or out of principle the outcome is the same, and they’d prefer to win.
Encouraging electoral participation is a worthwhile project, even if the motives of certain actors are questionable. That said, increasing turnout isn’t a long-term strategy. Harnessing frustration at Trump works right now, but it won’t work forever. Legislators with sufficient motivation will move to cement their institutional advantages, and those pining for a mythical era of civility and pure intentions will continue to endure losing elections.
Hank Minor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.