What if You Couldn't Vote?
If you imagine away that right, you will realize how much you truly understand about the political system, and what you contribute to it.
Some people use voting as an unhealthy coping mechanism, and this prevents them from taking better political action, which includes voting in more useful ways.
They might feel imposter syndrome, because they fill out their ballot without understanding what/who’s on it. They might feel frustrated or impotent, because they don’t understand how to influence the government beyond filling out a ballot. Or they might feel guilty, because they don’t do anything other than fill out a ballot.
But voting can give you a tool to hand-wave all of this away. You can repeat “I did my part” to yourself whenever these thoughts come up.
This is not necessarily a problem with voting.1 But it is something that voters need to be honest about, if they want to get beyond coping, and start solving. Facing your own bad voting habits clears the way for productive ones. Even more importantly: it can relieve you of guilt you don’t need to carry around.
But looking in the mirror in this way is hard for all of us, myself included:
What does it mean if you really acknowledge that you don’t know what or who you’re voting for—you’re just filling in a box?
What does it mean if you couldn’t explain how a bill becomes a law—but you vote for lawmakers?
What does it mean if you vote in New York City elections—but you don’t know what the city government legally does, compared to the state and federal government?
What does it mean if you see the obvious deficiencies of our current government—but can’t think of how you’ll vote your way out of it?
One of the best ways to answer these questions is to imagine that you, personally, didn’t have the right to vote.2 Once you put yourself into that scenario, you’ll realize what a load-bearing rationalization you’ve turned voting into.
The voter’s illusion of impact
For example: if you couldn’t vote—how would you influence who becomes your legislator or mayor? Do you have the remotest idea? Probably you do not, but many people use the act of voting to avoid thinking about this.
It’s easy enough to say “I did my part to select the legislator by voting!”
But did you?
Many races are severely uncompetitive or have no challenger, and elected officials in NYC will even brag about achieving North Korean levels of vote share in a race where they were the only person on the ballot. Voting is not a meaningful part of the political system in many places—the effective winner of the election was selected before it began.
By imagining you could not vote, you will realize that you might actually be in the same scenario as if you could vote—in either case, you have no impact on an electoral outcome. But you cannot stop the line of thinking there, unless you want to be mired in nihilism and inaction, using the badness of others as an excuse to avoid cultivating agency yourself. There is actually plenty you can do, and you can have a good time doing it. But it requires more than voting.3
And even if you live in a place with competitive ballots, all of this still applies. Imagining away your right to vote allows you to focus on what happens prior to the vote, and seeing what you can do there. Your action could be useful whether or not your final ballot is competitive.
So now you must ask: what is the process (or processes) that selected that person for the uncompetitive ballot? Are those fair (they might be)? Who is involved? How might you get involved in those processes, and exert genuine effect on who gets on the ballot? This is just as important to a healthy democracy as voting. Finding out the answers to these questions will be overwhelming at first, but I will help, and so will other Maximum New Yorkers. It’s not magic. It’s politics.
The cognitive dissonance of filling in the bubble
Are you now, or have you ever been, a person who confidently marches to the voting booth, only to hastily fill in the bubbles on your ballot without knowing exactly what any of it means?
Secret ballots let you do this, and no one will ever know. I’m glad we have secret ballots, but they also let people hide shame that they’d be better off confronting.
That shame is the cognitive dissonance you experience when you vote for someone without knowing who they are, and/or what their prospective office does. And then you get a sticker proclaiming that you voted. But would you wear the sticker if it said “I voted, but I didn't know what anything on the ballot meant!”? Of course not. You only wear the sticker because it connotes the opposite.
You are wielding the sovereign power of the voter, but in a way you aren’t proud of. Most people will not admit that they just blindly fill in bubbles, with only vague notions about what they’re doing. They either convince themselves that they do know what they’re doing (and some do), or they get up the nerve to ironically joke about their lack of knowledge with friends.
If you couldn’t vote, how would your knowledge level about what’s on your ballot change? It likely wouldn’t, with a small deviant blip around election time when you cram info from the internet or a voter guide4 into your head, only to forget it almost immediately.
This is not healthy, and it feels bad.
Electoral versus governing politics, and only-voters
Electoral politics are the politics that surround elections (campaigns, debates, voter drives, voting, etc), and they are far more obvious and sensationalized than the other 99% of politics.
The other 99% is governing politics—the stuff that happens in between elections. Laws are made, laws are enforced, laws are contested, politicos maneuver within their party superstructure, and so much more. The public is unaware of the vast majority of governing politics (which I don’t necessarily consider bad), and yet it is the bulk of politics.5
If voting is your only form of political engagement, you are arriving to a party that’s been going on long before you got there, and will continue long after you left. You are an only-voter.
Only-voters often feel frustrated that they don’t quite understand who all the people are on the ballot, what the web of relationships they all seem to have with each other is, or how these people will behave once they’re actually in office.
This frustration is natural and mostly inevitable. If you are an only-voter, there is no way you will have the knowledge to cure your frustration—that knowledge comes from engaging with governing politics, the other 99%.
But voting is an easy way for someone to say to themselves, “I’m politically engaged.” It can be an excuse to avoid the other 99%, as disempowering and frustrating as that might be. So it is worth imagining that you couldn’t vote, and seeing how you interact with what remains of the political system beyond it.
Silver and bronze bullets
In government and law, there is often no silver bullet. But there are often many bronze bullets! Which is to say: solutions are rarely instant, and they’re often composite.
Unfortunately, the habit of voting—and only voting—can cultivate a psychological appetite for instant solutions. The idea that “I voted for the right political party, why isn’t all the good stuff happening?” runs deep. Voting is a “one fell swoop” kind of action that takes no time,6 but the other 99% of politics does not usually work that way.
Again, the only-voter will inevitably feel frustrated, because: (1) even quick political change takes some time; (2) maybe you didn’t actually vote for the right people, but aren’t even aware; (3) maybe you have a systemic problem that blocks good individuals from doing their jobs, but solving that is the domain of governing politics; or (4) maybe you did vote for the right people, but they don’t have enough support during the 99% of politics that you ignore.
Blood from a stone
Voting alone can only get you so much, and sometimes it gets you nothing.
If that’s all you do, it’s important to align your expectations with reality. You cannot expect to get the results that come from engaging with the 99% of governing politics if you only hurriedly vote every once and a while.
Ask yourself: Did I do what was actually necessary to achieve the political results I want? Or did I just fill in some bubbles.
But what if you want more impact? What if you want to go beyond voting? What if you have imagined away your right to vote, and, instead of seeing a blackened pit of despair, you see a green field where much can be done?
From disillusioned voter to Citizen
It might seem like I think voting is useless. Far from it. But it isn’t that helpful in NYC without people who understand the other 99% of politics to some degree. Even if you’re a busy person who can’t take much time to learn about politics, you should learn enough to select good intellectual proxies and vote with their voters guides if you still want to have the best impact.
Voting is the most powerful when it is supported both before and after the vote with involvement in governmental politics. Which is to say: when only-voters stop using voting as an unproductive coping mechanism, and start using it as one bronze bullet among many.
I started a civics school, because it gives anyone who engages with it the tools and social network they need go beyond only-voting. Politics is interesting once you understand what you’re doing! It becomes a system like anything else, with all kinds of fascinating problems and surprising solutions. If you don’t understand NYC’s government, the reality is that you won’t engage with it at all, not even to vote.
You simply cannot compel new only-voters to show up in New York City elections, and all of the most powerful actors in our political system have failed to do so. In NYC’s 2021 general election, only 23.3% of eligible voters voted. In the age 18-29 cohort, only 11.1% voted. In the age 30-39 cohort, only 16.3% voted.7
A final note: take the pressure off of yourself
Learning about government takes time, because it is a complicated subject. Like any other domain, you could spend your whole life within it without finding the end.
There is no universal point of “learning enough.” There is only “learning enough relative to your goals.” If you want to learn enough to select a good intellectual proxy, that requires less work than becoming someone who is a reliable intellectual proxy for others.
Also: the government is not a monolith. It is subdivided into local, state, and federal, and it is further subdivided in many more ways. Do not try to learn all of it at once, because that cannot be done. Pick the part that is most compelling to you, and start there. Or find a good class to take that will walk you through the basics.
If you find yourself in a voting booth and you don’t know what all of the offices do, chill out. Do not try to pretend that you do, and don’t pretend to others that you do. That will produce terrible cognitive dissonance. Focus on the things you do know, and vote in line with those. Learn and do more before the next election.
Many people genuinely want to understand how government works, but they don’t know how to go about learning. Politicos and political scientists often say this is “voter apathy,” but it is not, at least not entirely. This is a cop out. It is apathy on the part of those who want votes, or want to be “civics teachers,” who simply aren’t good enough at their jobs to motivate voters.
So: be kind to yourself. Stop using your vote as a crutch. Take the bold leap into the other 99% of politics. Ask me for help if you need.
It starts to become a problem with voting itself when there are too many elections. Good democracy does not mean having as many elections as possible, which only a very narrow slice of the populace could meaningfully engage with. It means having as few elections as possible, while still retaining the sovereignty of the people.
Depending on someone’s desire to get politically involved, I recommend learning how the NYC government works before jumping into political work. Otherwise you will always be frustrated, not understand how all the different pieces (which there are a seemingly unending amount of) fit together, and—most critically—you won’t have a good time. This should feel like pleasant exertion with your friends, not crawling over broken glass.
It’s OK to use voter guides as a knowledge proxy. If you’re busy and you don’t know what’s going to be on your ballot, it’s perfectly legitimate to take a trusted friend or source’s word for it—assuming you have done the work to validate them as having good judgement. It’s also psychologically healthier to acknowledge to yourself that you outsourced your political choices, and that this is fine. We all do it to some extent, because we cannot know everything!
This is part of the theory of Secret Congress, which can be applied to the state and local level as well.
This is not quite true. You have to register to vote, and then you have to actually go take time to vote. How much time and effort this takes varies by state and locality, some of which offer mail-in voting. Generally speaking though, voting is a “one-shot” action, and takes comparatively no effort compared to engaging with governing politics.