To Vote or Not To Vote? My Head Hurts.

[3 am post, might be slightly disjointed]

Recently a friend of mine posted a rather fiery status update on the Facebook pulpit. He condemned those who had chosen to not cast their ballots for the 2012 US Presidential Election; it was a shameful course of action and one which ultimately had no real consequence or worth. To abstain from voting as a ‘political statement’, according to my friend, was to essentially yell into an empty auditorium – no one would hear it and no one would care and you would only appear to be a “flake” who could not be “trusted to vote.”

The status, unsurprisingly led to an impassioned debate. While I had certainly much to say, I kept quiet and decided to mull a bit more over my thoughts.

As a human being and as a person of strong conviction to faith, I have both particular and general modalities of moral expression, experience, grievance and outlook. My particular, always evolving but still steadfast in foundational principles, is informed by what I understand of Islam in both theological and ethical terms. My general moral modalities are informed by all my experiences as a human being with a transitional and layered identity. And, of course, both my particular and general overlap to such an extent that it becomes 1. inevitable that they inform one another and 2. ridiculous for me to even differentiate between the two.

Despite it being difficult for me to really differentiate the two, the influence my various moral outlooks and experiences have on one another make any decision making process a tough one. At least the big decisions. I find that I have to weigh every thing I know about a particular situation against everything else that I know. And then I need to figure out what I don’t know and  throw that onto the scale. It’s painful and I wish they had a Tylenol for those situations. And certainly these decisions, mostly, are never really made- I find myself continuously questioning where I’ve landed since my last discussion with myself and then move on from there. This works well for me but not so well when someone just straight up asks me a question, expecting a black or white answer.

Sorry, I don’t work that way.

This past year I’ve been thinking a lot about The Vote. In particular, the following questions have floated around my lusciously hairy head:

While the vote is central to democracy, does it ultimately matter in a plutocratic/technocratic system that has shades of democracy?

If you have the right to exercise your right to vote, then surely you have the right to abstain – but why is there so much negative stigma associated with the latter?

Is it wrong to abstain from voting, even with good reason? Or is no reason ever good enough? Is to abstain to disenfranchise yourself unnecessarily as well as remove yourself from the most basic form of participation in the public?

In the context of Canada, where I reside and am eligible to vote, does my vote ultimately matter when, as witnessed in the last election, because of the multi-party system a non-representative party can win as a majority or minority government because of a split in votes? For example, in our last election the Canadian Left split on the Liberals and NDP, which made it a nice slide in for the God-awful Conservatives.

In the context of the United States, where I am from but not eligible to vote, does a citizen’s vote matter when 1. You’re essentially voting for a figure head who will be heavily constrained by a plethora of individuals, industries, lobbies and interests, thus rendering their platforms and personal convictions near useless and 2. The electoral college determines the winner not the popular vote?

If I am morally opposed to the policies of my government and the parties that perpetuate violence/empire/racism/classism/sexism at home and abroad, can my abstention be an act of civil disobedience, in some respects, towards the state? If I am a citizen of a free and fair society then surely my decision to abstain from participating in a process that I may see as inherently useless, flawed and deeply problematic and undemocratic is nothing short of my practicing my democratic agency and citizenship, right?

I don’t know what the right answer is. People die to cast a ballot. Others start wars in its name. But it’s never really the ‘ballot’ itself for which people are dying or killing – it’s always something more that that ballot seems to represent.

I have abstained from voting, once, in all the years I’ve been eligible to vote in Canada. The year I abstained –the year the Conservatives took office after the Liberals– I did so out of the conviction of my ignorance. I didn’t know who to vote for. I hold no party affiliations and vote based on both present platform and history. I hadn’t kept up with the debates or issues that year and felt that my vote would be a vote of ignorance; my ballot is more than just a piece of paper, it is an act of civic participation. But that civic participation is predicated not just on having a right (privilege even) but also on having the necessary knowledge to exercise my right. I did not want to vote for the sake of voting and thus I abstained.

In more recent years I’ve also wondered how as a Muslim I could participate in a system that worked to help perpetuate social injustices even if that act of casting a ballot was to me a central part of practicing my faith as a citizen of a country. To vote for a particular candidate means, in most basic terms, to support that candidate and his/her party. So I was stuck with the dilemma of whether my vote made me implicit in the injustices carried out by those I help put in power. As a Muslim, one of my strongest commitments is to social justice and to people, no matter who they are or where they are from. My loyalty is not to any state, party, movement or ideology. Nevertheless, I have kept voting; I saw, albeit unknowingly, participation in the political process as a voter or even as a candidate, as a Muslim, in similar terms to the story of the Prophet Joseph.

Joseph, after being sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, would not only participate in the political forum of the Pharoah – with whom he vehemently disagreed- but would also become the Pharoah’s vizier. In a Q&A session with an Islamic scholar I saw awhile back, he made a great deduction from this story: Joseph’s participation in the political process did not mean that he supported the ill policies and rule of the Egyptian Pharoah. Instead, Joseph took an opportunity where he could help and better the lives of the people of Egypt who were so terribly affected by  a long running famine. Till the day he died, Joseph was a man of conscience and justice.

I currently am at a point where I believe in both the right to vote and to abstain from voting – without any negative connotation to either choice. I believe that either choice mitigates democracy for the better simply because citizens are making the choice, for really whatever reason, to participate and engage with their citizenship in a way that they want to. To paraphrase a famous quote – I may not agree with how you choose to participate and engage with yourself, your body, your society, your country–but I sure as hell will defend to the death your right to it. Unless it’s hurting people. Then stop it.

I wanted to end this post with some comments from friends, acquaintances and readers on their thoughts on voting, electoral process in their country, democracy and even how their faith, if any at all, plays into it all. I asked them the following:

Do you think it is important to vote in a federal election? If yes, then why? If not, then why not? What are your thoughts on your country’s electoral system? Does voting make an actual difference? If you are of faith, how does your religion affect your decision to vote or not vote? What do you want to change in your country’s electoral process the most?

Some responses:

Yes I think it’s important to vote in federal elections, as not only is it a right, but I firmly believe it is a duty of citizens that can only be self-disciplined. I am not a fan of the first-past-the-post system in Canada, I think it ends up with governments that are not fully representative of people’s votes. Voting may not make as much difference as we would like and there are other ways for us as citizens to try and pressure the government. But voting, the way I see it, is at the very least a statement of where we want the country to head towards and, in the Canadian example, there are pretty big differences between say the NDP and Conservatives, at least in theory. Religion does not affect any decision in my life, though I’m agnostic so I am not part of an established faith or organized religion.

I’d want to change the fptp system to something closer to proportional representation. Also, I think the status of Senators being appointed merits a debate (I am still undecided). However a big issue with Canada is how it’s being turned into a Prime-Ministerial system thanks to the “whip system”, that allows a party leader to essentially impose his vote on all members of his party. Essentially meaning they don’t do their jobs fully as elected representatives, but only act as followers of the party leader. – Ayman, Canada

Voting is one way to do democracy but its effectiveness depends upon how much the people are enfranchised and take ownership over the system that counts the votes. People should vote knowing the flaws of the system that takes votes in account; and if they are dissatisfied with the results that should serve as a wake up call that they need to do different forms of democracy to change the system that processes the votes. The more citizens do democracy and do it in all its forms, the more that the totality of voting can reflect the will of a people and its greivances. So, just do democracy, do it in all its forms, and then we just might get democracy. – Muhammad, US

Voting is a tough one. I want people to vote, but I want them to educate themselves on what’s at stake first. I would rather have 1000 intelligent and concerned individuals who’ve made a point of studying the material than have the masses vote blindly. For instance I don’t vote unless I’ve put some effort into it. – Jade, Canada

Voting is simply not that relevant – at least in the US. We’re led to believe that it is the pinnacle of participation, which is the most dangerous lie. The media and popular culture coopt the American spirit of fair play to promote a choice between two sides whose place on the ticket was and never will be their choice. In the past few Presidential elections, nearly half of the voters didn’t even contribute. If you’re on the losing side in a state, your vote was worthless. No amount of “yeah, but, if” can counter the massive opportunity cost of losing out on being politically represented. Nevermind that this theft of participation necessitates two parties that, in broad terms, represent the same interests. At least a non-vote doesn’t require you to half-believe the lies, if you think voting machines AREN’T rigged, which I haven’t even mentioned.

That being said, I live in a country where I cannot vote because of my religion and half the population ruled by the winners is excluded as well. Still, when it comes time to vote, at least the ruling ethnicity, which includes workers, poor, and those who want to upset the status quo – at least in proportional voting they can vote Communist or Arab Nationalist and their vote contributes to putting a voice into the parliament.

I told my g/f’s father about voting machines and the controversies surrounding them. He was shocked and declared “the American people would never put up with that”. HAH! Here, we still vote with pieces of paper. You pick one up with the letter of your party and drop it in a box while members of all of the parties watch to maintain fairness. Odd that it’s racist and backwards, yet the procedures are essentially more fair. Chomsky says this too, if you think I’m a nut. – David, Israel

Of course I think it’s important vote in my country’s federal election. Barring all of the shortcomings with democracy as a system of governance, not to mention American democracy specifically, voting is the most immediate way you decide how you want to be governed. It is one of the most powerful ways in America that you can engage with the institutions of government, though the power of voting lies not in the individual, but in the ability to mobilize the collective. Voting is another one of many reminders that though at least the ideal of our individual rights is guaranteed, the actual protection and manifestation of those rights along with everything else in the Constitution is determined in a collective process, and that we are inevitably tied to society as long as we claim citizenship.

I think voting’s important as an end in itself – it is your right and civic duty. When you choose not to engage, you willingly give up one means by which you engage the political system. Never willingly give up power. Spoil your ballot, vote third party, I don’t care. But vote. That said, voting is the least engaged form of civic participation – there’s a lot of groundwork in terms of mobilizing and educating that goes into any sort of political change. It’s also obviously a means to an end – our choice of candidates reflects the future we desire for our country and on some level, the world.

Voting does not make a difference individually, but collectively it does.

I go with Rawls’s veil of ignorance in terms of how I want my country governed – a level playing field for all, and the same rights and protections. What guides my morals is my personal decision, it doesn’t drive how I think a country of diverse beliefs should be governed.

The electoral college and campaign finance – not that either those are likely to change soon. I want the system of presidential elections to be based on the popular vote, and a publicly-funded campaign finance system with a reasonable cap, absolute maximum $1 million. – Zulaykha, US

1.  Faith and voting:  Am not all that religious.  In the current political pattern of the U.S., the religious influence mostly means another reason to vote against republican/conservative minded people.

2.  Abstaining from voting:  I stick to the view (That a lot of people probably have) that all abstaining accomplishes in terms of political effects is that politicians and other government people will pay less attention, and focus on the people who do vote.  In general, voting on its own will not get certain concerns, interests, etc. heard, but it is better to vote in these cases than not vote.  I mostly see avoiding voting described as some principled ideas of “both parties stink, so I won’t support them”, but that’s not a way to make any changes occur either.  (It reads like righteous laziness to some extent, as there are likely other things the people involved could do to have more influence, and possibly provide better possibilities to vote on.)  (Of course, I can’t complain too much, as I forgot to get registered until possibly too late, and still haven’t worked myself up to getting involved in something other than spending money, so still need to guilt myself into doing some more action.)

Other thoughts:  Election system seems like it could use easier registration, election day off, possibly a different process to access primaries, but big limits on campaign donations are the big one.  Biggest issue, as you’ve written and probably said plenty about (Although probably not exactly  the same stuff, or in the same way as I would) are the overall ideologies that reach the voting stage currently, although whether the election process effects this is something I can’t say apart from how campaign finance works (Multiparty systems may provide a greater variety of parties, but that sort of coalition politics has its own issues from what I’ve heard, and the current U.S. system has been adaptable in the past from what I understand.). – Pickly, US


Pre-GWB, the common argument I encountered “for” [voting] was that we must attempt to enjoin the good and forbid the evil via our vote, i.e., vote for those who are against what Allah SWT has proscribed for mankind.  The fallacy of this had been shown in the past, but was thrown into sharp relief post 9/11 – GWB was socially conservative, but his policies and legacy have greatly harmed Muslims both at home and abroad.  Further, in a pluralist society, it is not incumbent or even sensible of us to attempt to impose our values on others; we want to live our lives and practice our religion in the fashion we choose to, and we don’t like it when someone tries to take away that right from us.  Thus, it makes more sense for Muslims to defend this right for others – even if we disagree with their lifestyles – than to attempt to marginalize or discriminate against their behaviors as well (assuming those behaviors have no direct impact on or infringe the rights of others. the abortion issue complicates this, as progressives typically tend to be pro-choice, often laissez-faire pro-choice.  beyond the scope of this blurb, which is already much lengthier than it should be).  Occasionally you still encounter this viewpoint, but with far less frequency than you would have in the late 90s.

Some now attempt to argue that it’s a matter of faith to vote for a candidate that better represents Muslim interests, or is less bellicose toward Muslim nations.  Whether this is truly a matter of faith is debatable, but it’s academic anyway – there is no *viable* candidate that fits this description (one can make our presence felt by voting for such a candidate even if they are non-viable, though it’s questionable how useful of an endeavor this is)

Ultimately, in ambiguous cases, what is and what isn’t a “matter of faith” in Islamic philosophy is a very dynamic thing; to a pious, enlightened Muslim, everything should be a matter of faith.  However, the same conclusion may not be reached on the same matter by two equally pious individuals with different ways of thinking, and when the same conclusion is reached, it may very well be for entirely different reasons.  If you vote with the intention of pleasing Allah as your goal, regardless of your reasoning, then voting is a matter of faith for you and you will be rewarded for it.

The effect of abstention on democracy can be either negative or positive, I would say it’s subjective and determined by context and motive.  Voting abstention in South Africa helped delegitimize and bring about the downfall of the apartheid system, which was negative for apologists of that system, but positive for the democracy as a whole.  Abstention here by a group such as Muslims is obviously ineffectual and counter-productive, as we don’t have the critical mass required to make an impact (let alone a system-altering one) on an election by our absence.  One might argue that the converse is arguably true, that we don’t have the critical mass required to make an impact on an election by our presence.  But in practice, it takes far lesser numbers to make an impact as a positive constituency than a negative one.

Mohammad, US

Happy voting. Happy abstaining. Happy making your own choice.

5 thoughts on “To Vote or Not To Vote? My Head Hurts.

  1. It is a greater service to Democracy not to vote, than to cast an reckless vote, if you are ignorant of or are disinterested in the issues,

  2. I’m surprised (although probably shouldn’t be, given how religious laws show up in all sorts of other unexpected places) at how you and second Mohammad describe religious saying as influencing your views on voting in general, instead of just how to choose which person to vote for. It does explain the question on twitter, though.

  3. Well it’s about ethical considerations, right? We all have sources, known and unknown, from which we derive our ethical/moral decisions. And as I mention: it’s hard to differentiate between all the sources. My faith doesn’t dictate everything I believe but rather I utilize my faith as one lens through which I can see the world and consider options in decision making. Islam is not a monolith and its more about experience and understanding.

  4. It’s definitely interesting to see what you came up with (So was surprised in a good way, if it didn’t come across that way.),and shows some unusual ways ot view voting.

  5. Democracy is, like all political systems, meant to protect the interests of those in power, whether as monied interest groups, entrenched political classes, or mobilized voting blocs. Like all political systems it often leaves one feeling like one is picking the lesser of the evil rather than someone who you believe in. Having said that voting is a civic duty. It is part of our civic contract, if one will, every time we participate in civic life, whether that’s using public services or sitting in a pub voicing out disdain for particular policies. Cast a vote for the green party, the yogi bear party, or what have you but you must vote. Without it you have not done your civic duty.

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