To Those Who Believe in Voting

Thoughts on the Least Important Decision People Make Every Four Years

Bu Noel Ignatiev
May 12, 2015
Counter Punch


One morning years ago, as I entered the classroom for a course I taught on U.S. history, I found the students engaged in a discussion of elections. One of them, whom I knew to be a supporter of “progressive” causes and who had previously complained about student apathy, asked me in a despairing tone, “Why don’t people vote?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “To me, the more interesting question is, Why do they?”

Why do people vote? The individual voter does not choose the winner of the election; she chooses which lever to pull or which box to check on a piece of paper. Yet some people get angry at me and call me a shirker when I tell them I don’t vote. If you don’t vote, they tell me, you have noignatiev right to complain.

Why not, I ask. Where is that written?

Some point out that in the past people died for the right to vote.

That is true, I respond, but beside the point: people also died for the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but no one calls abortion a public duty.

Clearly, something is operating here besides logic.

The only explanation I can come up with is that people vote for the same reason they cheer or do the wave at an athletic competition—it makes them feel part of a community. Now, I respect the desire for community. In the good old Hew Hess of Hay, “citizens” choose people to
represent them. To vote is to participate in a community ritual. It begins in grade school, when children elect who among them will get to clean the blackboards.

Rituals reinforce the society that gives rise to them. By reenacting the voting ritual people reinforce a system that ensures their powerlessness. This is true regardless of whom they vote for.

The New Society is based on people acting in concert to shape their lives. Representative versus direct democracy. The Paris Commune. The Flint Sitdown Strike. The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Tahrir Square.

As someone who believes in both the necessity and possibility of a New Society, my goal is to draw a clear line between it and all efforts to “work within the system.” In pursuit of that goal, I pledge not to engage in any discussion of whether one party or candidate is worse than another, whether it is advisable to work for Democrats, whether it makes a difference which Democrat one works for, whether activists should limit their electoral efforts to Socialist candidates, whether it is possible to be both a Socialist and a Democrat.

I promise to share no wisdom about primaries and swing states.

Finally, since I believe that for most people whether or how they vote is probably the least important decision they make every few years, and that most of them know it and will recover their sense of reality as soon as the “silly season” is over, and that they will do what they want regardless of anything I say, I also pledge not to argue with anyone about voting.

One more thing, which may seem to contradict everything I have said above: There are two classes of people who are excluded from voting: the first consists of those convicted of what the state calls “crimes.” Their numbers run into the millions, they are important factors in the economy of the localities where they reside, and their votes could conceivably swing an election; the second group consists of those not counted as “citizens,” who perform a large and increasing amount of the drudge work of the country.

Those who take voting seriously could do worse than undertake a campaign to extend the right to vote to these two classes. Interrogate the candidates. Demand that they declare themselves publicly on these issues. Carry signs. Interrupt debates and election rallies. Do as the Abolitionists – many of whom did not believe in voting – did when they brought the issue of slavery to center stage.

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996).  He blogs here. He can be reached at



10 thoughts on “To Those Who Believe in Voting

  1. ShelbyCourtland

    I refuse to vote ever again! There is no point and people can point out the fact that my ancestors were hosed down with high powered water hoses, had dogs let loose on them, were jailed and so forth for trying to obtain the right to vote, but I still maintain that I am refusing to vote ever again. It makes no difference if I do or if I don’t because nothing ever changes for the better. We continue to get more corruption, hypocrisy, wars, poverty, homelessness; more disenfranchised people while the military gets funded to the detriment of all else and we continue to mind the business of all other countries, AGAIN, to the detriment of this one.

    We have no high speed rail. To get from the Midwest to the East Coast by train, I would have to spend a night in Chicago because shipping oil and coal, etc., by rail takes precedence over shipping passengers by rail because there is only ONE track, Our bridges are in such disrepair, that they have a D+ rating by civil engineers in every state. Our power grids are shot to sh*t. California is drought stricken. The other day when I was in the produce section of the grocery store, there was a sign pertaining to the absence of strawberries. The claim is that there will be sporadic shipments of strawberries due to the California drought and to please note that this could affect other fruits.

    So, what does voting accomplish? Nothing good and that is a fact! I refuse to willingly participate in a farce since I already have millions of dead people on my plate thanks in part to my tax dollars going to kill people in foreign lands. I have had it with this hole. A gnat couldn’t wipe its ass on the amount of patriotism that I possess since it is non-existent.

    Thank you for posting this one news!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. newsfortherevolution Post author

      For me, this sentence sums it all up, “By reenacting the voting ritual people reinforce a system that ensures their powerlessness.”

      Although the system does more than keep us powerless, as you pointed out, the system also exploits, oppresses and murders. I don’t understand how anyone can still have faith in the “democratic” process.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. sojourner

    “Rituals reinforce the society that gives rise to them. By reenacting the voting ritual people reinforce a system that ensures their powerlessness. This is true regardless of whom they vote for.

    The New Society is based on people acting in concert to shape their lives. Representative versus direct democracy. The Paris Commune. The Flint Sitdown Strike. The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Tahrir Square”

    This says it all! I have been on this bandwagon for two decades. Political activism, of any kind, that supports this system/order, is, for the people who partake, just another driving of a nail in their own coffin!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. sojourner

        This is the only way left.

        This system was broke to begin with, but now it is self-destructing, it is destroyed. And the only way to deal with destruction, is to start over again, and, in this case, in a completely different direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ars1947

    I think voting is still important. After all if we stop, we give more power to those who have their own interests in mind. Bad things don’t happen only when bad people do them, but when good people do nothing to stop them.

    I for one cannot wait to vote. It’s my opportunity to change something, at least in a smaller scale in my own community if not nationally


    1. newsfortherevolution Post author

      I really do love your enthusiasm, and there was a time a felt the exact same way. Maybe it’s because I’m old(er) now and have participated in many elections that I’ve become jaded to it all.

      Democracy cannot function properly unless each member of society participates in the process. That’s how we create a healthy and just system. The problem now is that there is no democracy. Politicians are not accountable to the voters, they are accountable to their paymasters. This is why the interests of the people always come after the interests of the elite. We have money for war, but no money for education and health care. We have money for bailouts of banks, but not families whose life savings are lost as a result of corrupt bankers. We can afford huge tax breaks and corporate subsidies, but can’t afford job creation programs or to invest in city infrastructure.

      It doesn’t matter who is elected, nothing is going to change as a result. If any change is to come, it will not happen at that ballot box.

      I really don’t want to discourage you, because it is great that you are actively engaged. And you are right, at the community level voting can still make a difference. Particularly in smaller cities, money has not completely corrupted the process and there is still an opportunity to actively engage the candidates and participate in the governing process. I’ve been to a few city council meetings and seen first hand how citizens can make a difference in shaping legislation. That would definitely the place where you could have the opportunity to change something

      Liked by 2 people

      1. ars1947

        🙂 I feel like things will only get worse the more people feel discouraged. I want to be part of that push, a wave of people that will one day change the world for the better, or at least spark the flames in the hearts and minds of others.

        Today me and a couple of friends were actually discussing some of the things that inspired us to pursue certain careers or areas of interest, and it all came back to our teachers. These are the same people who have been encouraging us to questiom everything and be actively engaged in the society we live in. I suppose that’s why I want change so badly, I see people who may not have acheived it themselves, but definitely sparked it in me and some of my peers.

        Liked by 1 person

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