This is the third in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Nekeisha Alexis-Baker provides an essay entitled “Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination.” Alexis-Baker opens her essay by noting that not voting is an offensive gesture. In her case, the offense is at least four-fold, being black, a woman, a naturalized citizen, and an American in general. Not voting is offensive because voting is seen, whether people admit it or not, as a sacred rite. Voting is the citizen’s voice, earned by struggle. However, in this essay she explores the effectiveness of electoral politics in bringing about change and challenges the notion of “voting-as-voice.” The problematic nature of ballots is explained thus:
There is no space on ballots for people to share thoughts on issues that concern them. Ballots do not contain room for voters to indicate why thy have chosen a particular candidate or to identify agreeable policies. A ballot only has room to affirm prepackaged candidates whose vague plans have been publicized by sound bites, by negative camp, in speeches, and in televised debates. (25)
In other words, voting gives the citizen a voice which has only a few words it can say. Alexis-Baker also notes the problematic nature of interpreting the voice of the public once the votes have been cast. As she noted, there is no space for marginal notes on the ballot, so the politicians can choose to act or not act as they please. Another problem with voting, according to the author, is the problem of disenfranchisement and voter suppression. As an example, Alexis-Baker notes how in 2004 there was a trend to have fewer, older voting machines servicing high-density, minority districts in Ohio. The net result was that fewer blacks got to vote, whereas whites in richer areas had no line to wait in. (This sort of problem can be alleviated by vote-by-mail programs such as Oregon has implemented.)
Her point is that over a hundred years after the 15th Amendment, there are still many barriers to full and equal enfranchisement. In my opinion, this indicates a need for electoral reform. Not voting in solidarity with the voiceless might be a good way to engage the conscience of America. Alexis-Baker suggests that major changes are needed to the system, including the abolition of the Electoral College. I find this standpoint extremely problematic because I do not think there is anything wrong with the Electoral College, only that there is something wrong with most people’s understanding of it. However, given that all 50 states have now for over a century been using a popular vote to choose their electors, perhaps a direct popular vote would be advisable. At the very least it would move the process (which is really an expression of federalism, not democracy) more in line with people’s perceptions of what the presidential election ought to be.
Here Alexis-Baker turns to challenge Christians to “think outside the ballot box.” Voting is not the only voice a citizen has – it is not even the most effective voice a citizen has. The 1960s civil rights movement in America is lifted up as a paragon of this principle. Voting did not achieve the changes which came about in that decade. In fact, part of the problem was that blacks could not vote in many places due to intimidation or segregation laws. Rather marches, boycotts, and sit-ins were the voice of the people. And this voice was heard, loud and clear, and it was carried forth by the literal voices of the movement’s leaders, many of whom were churchmen. If voting is the only political expression one uses, one’s voice can safely be ignored. But a loud, effective voice will take the form of disruptive political action, both because it is better heard and because it engages the conscience of the society at large. In other words, voting is not an effective means to achieving real change. Voting can only achieve the change which is allowed by the powers that be: column A or column B. Voting, as Alexis-Baker notes, allows for voices to be heard only at structured times.
Overall Alexis-Baker has made a good point: she has declawed voting. We can see how an act which may seem like a sacred rite is truly ineffective at producing large changes. Therefore the decision to not vote is no abdication of responsibility or opportunity. Rather it is a choice to use one’s political voice in a truly unrestrained and more effective way.
Alexis-Baker provides some excellent ideas for consideration. At the very least, Christians must be challenged to not allow voting to be their sole form of political engagement. In so doing they are submitting to a process which might not allow their witness to be effectively heard. For example: though it is considered in bad taste by some Christians, protesting against abortion probably has a much better chance of ending its legality than does voting for Republican presidential candidates. Furthermore, Christians must recognize the truth that fighting abortion is not the same as fighting the legality of abortion, and therefore the most effective action in that area cannot be achieved with a ballot. It can only be achieved by us living out neighbor-love. I believe Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s Mennonite roots would have her agreeing with me on this point: non-voting political engagement must remain non-violent. Of course violent means can be quite effective in achieving political change (case in point: The USA). However, as Christians we ought to seek to follow Christ, who achieved the greatest change by refusing to fight back.