Nadia Eghbal

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Not voting as a form of protest

Sometime at the end of last year, I wondered about what it would look like to have a mass-organized abstention campaign. My interest in this topic was mostly casual, but in a moment of enthusiasm, I shared these thoughts on a mailing list with a bunch of creative politically-minded folks, looking for ideas and inspiration.

While I did receive a few helpful resources, I was surprised to be mostly met with derision and skepticism. Critiques ranged from abstention being lazy or apolitical to a “vote for the other side.” A number of people reminded me, gently or not, of my civic duty to vote.

I don’t think of abstention as markedly different from any other sort of civic engagement initiative. It’s true that many people don’t vote because they were just “too busy” or don’t think their vote matters, but not voting can also be a political stance, signifying dissatisfaction with the system. (25% of registered voters in the U.S. who didn’t vote in 2016 said they didn’t do so because they “didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues,” a figure that doubled from previous elections in recent years.)

As an organized movement, abstention can make just as much of a statement as voting. Citizens could stage a walkout from elections, like going on strike but from their own country. Instead of the popular “I voted!” stickers, it’s “I didn’t vote.” There are examples of non-voting as a form of protest in Malta and Estonia, as well as an Irish abstentionist political party, Sinn Féin, that refuses to take its seats in UK Parliament.

Political economist Albert Hirschman tells us that when faced with a decision that offers deteriorating quality of choice, people will respond with either voice (advocating for change from within) or exit (opting out of the system). Voting is, of course, “voice,” but characterizing abstention as apathy or laziness, rather than a form of civic engagement that rightfully probes at our ability to “exit,” seems uncharitable.

I worry that our infatuation with voting sets the bar for civic engagement at an artificial place, which makes it difficult to discuss our political systems more comprehensively. Every tech platform runs ads encouraging its users to go out and vote, which are largely seen as uncontroversial, while some countries outside of the United States, like Australia and Singapore, have compulsory voting laws.

I assume these things happen because platforms and governments alike think that asking people to vote is an inherently nonpartisan stance. But while asking people to vote might be nonpartisan on a per-election level, it discourages us from critically examining the system of voting itself, which has known problems, especially at scale. If not during an election cycle, while voting is top of mind for everyone, when is the right time to discuss these flaws?

I’m not here to advocate that we don’t vote. To the best of my memory, I’ve even voted in every election I’ve been eligible to vote in. The reason I’m curious about this topic is because the idea of not voting seems to provoke a sort of digust and moral outrage that, say, democratic lotteries or liquid democracy, does not, even though these are arguably equally radical proposals (and certainly less mundane than abstention, which carries its own sort of unremarkable charm). Without leaving the problem space open for honest inquiry and exploration, it’s hard to imagine how our political systems—not just the players, but its underlying infrastructure—will evolve.

Whether we continue to vote or not, I would like us to at least invite the idea of “not voting” as a form of peaceful protest into our shared toolkit, as we consider civic strategies that will help us create the world we want to see.