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Electing for Change

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 3, 2008

The only time I’ve had someone question my commitment to Jesus (at least to my face) was when I said that I was intentionally not-voting. And, indeed, the most oft-viewed and oft-debated articles on Jesus Manifesto tend to be ones that advocate a non-voting position. 

I’ve received dozens (perhaps hundreds) of blog comments, emails, Facebook messages, etc that challenge this position of mine as being “unintelligent” or “moronic” or “lame” or “stupid” or “un-American” or “un-Christian” etc. As far as I can tell, the only one of these adjectives that fit me is the one about being “un-American.” 

Unless the election is closer than we think, all of this talk about non-voting will soon be over–at least until the next major election. This post is intended as my final post about this issue for the election season. So take it for what its worth.

Electing Not to Vote

One of the more interesting political books this season is Electing Not to Vote, edited by Ted Lewis from Wipf and Stock. The book includes chapters from a variety of folks (Catholic, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal) exploring the viability of non-voting. As you can imagine, most of the reviews have been negative. Like this recent review from Christianity today:

No, this is primarily a book about feelings—the essayists’ feelings, their strenuous moral wrestling, their evolution to their present stage of enlightenment. I read a lot of books. I can’t remember the last time I read a book as smug as this one.

The whole review continues in this theme. John Wilson, reviewer, never actually engages the ideas. Instead he acts as though it has no intellectual merit and attacks it for being too “emotive.” Interesting. The review is actually reminiscent of a Sojourners review from Lauren Winner who, in an uncharacteristic lack of intellectual honesty, seems to have written a review that doesn’t actually engage the ideas in the book. Instead she dismisses the whole book as advocating a withdrawal from political engagement:

The contributors to this volume see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.  

If you’re interested in a rather scathing response to Ms. Winner’s review, check out what Halden has to say here. 

So far, I’ve only found one positive review from the mainstream sources. William Willamon wrote a generally positive review of the book on Christian Century:

Even more troubling for Christians, voting attenuates the church’s political imagination and deludes us into thinking that we have actually performed some worthy social action when we have pestered church members to get out and vote. If voting is not a definite evil, argue a number of these authors, it is at best the weakest and most ineffective form of Christian political action…

Sadly, this book has robbed me of any theological rationale for my furtive actions in November; I just vote out of habit. It’s what people in my economic bracket do. My church even encourages me in it.

I agree with most of the authors who warn that voting only encourages the functionaries of the modern state to think that the people (who are now the functional equivalent of God) have given them some sort of popular mandate to do as they please to defend the state and its power. For the most part, I found their arguments to be biblically radical and curiously compelling.

Still, despite the wonderfully biblical and theological arguments of the essays in this little book, I confess that I expect to slither secretly into a voting booth in November and cast my ballot.

The most interesting thing for me this election has been the amount of anger I’ve received. People often assume that I’m getting itno people’s faces about this. I am not. Just for the record, almost everyone in my intentional community is voting–including my wife. It isn’t something I get frothy-mouthed over. In fact, it isn’t even something that I’m all that passionate about in the grand scheme of things.

Why do I keep writing about it? Because it raises all sorts of interesting issues. For example, I find it interesting that people often tell me that “if I don’t vote, then I have no right to complain.” This sort of sentiment reveals the myth that voting is the primary, most effective way of bringing about change. Folks almost ALWAYS make a leap in their thinking from non-voting to disengagement. That is why in the Winner article I referenced above, she mistakenly assumes that non-voting is a quietist position. 

If someone didn’t know I was a non-voter, they might draw the conclusion that I’m very politically active. After all, protesting against ATK (who makes clusterbombs) is one of my weekly rituals. I also talk about politics a fair amount–often challenging people to rethink what it means to bring change in society. And Missio Dei is increasingly involved in neighborhood political and justice issues. In the future, I see myself taking increasinly proactive positions on poverty, homelessness, war, and immigration. But my primary way of doing this will never (I hope and pray) be voting. 

Voting isn’t the most direct or effective way of electing for change. 

Sure, but that doesn’t equal non-voting

Some folks tend to be very sympathetic to my political sensibilities. But many of them (like the folks at Missio Dei, my faith community) are still planning to vote. If someone wants to vote as a lesser “weapon” in their arsenal of political engagement, I’m not goint to gripe about it too much. In my mind, voting is an American sacrament that affirms a fallen system that often stands in opposition to the reign of Christ. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is idolatrous or sinful. 

Some of my friends have argued that the most socially just way to vote is to vote for third parties. In fact, when my friend Becky Garrison visited, she raised this point several times, suggesting that the Green Party (which has multi-ethnic female runningmates) is much more prophetic choice. 

Meanwhile, my economist friend (who also has theological training) dlw advocates a New Kind of Third Party. He argues that local third party movements are a great way for Christian Radicals and Christian Anarchist types to engage the system. In a recent forum discussion on Christarchy, he writes:

This is the sort of decentralization of authority that is feasible in our world and, as a Christian, I believe that the early Christians were political outsiders, not unlike how third parties in a two-party dominated system are outsiders and so that should be our preferred location for political activism as a critical but not central part of our holistic witness to others.

He argues for strategic voting, seeking to create third party places, decentralizing the political system, and finding ways to organize local communities around third parties that resist the dominance of the two party system. If I were to become a voter again, this is the sort of approach I’d take. In fact, it tends to be the way I think about local engagement (see dlw…you have made at least SOME impact in my thinking). :)

If you’re going to engage the political system through voting, make sure you’re being shrewd as a serpent. Don’t buy into the hype. Be informed. And don’t be deceived–voting is indirect, ineffective, imagination-stealing, and often takes up more of our energy than its worth. 

For another interesting take on voting, check out Shane’s thoughts on the God’s Politics blog.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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Comments

Viewing 37 Comments

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    A funny little anecdote related to the saying "if you don't vote, you can't complain".

    I was chatting with my brother, who was mentioning that neither he nor his wife voted in the recent Canadian election - along with almost half the country. When I chuckled and asked what he thought about the saying he said up north it's the reverse: only the non-voters can complain, because THEY sure as heck weren't the ones to elect the bastards!

    I'm with you one this though: it's not a battle worth fighting, and if people want to vote, let them....but I urge them to think outside the box, and let their vote be the beginning, and not the end, of their social engagement.
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    I wish the link was on "A New Kind of Third Party", not dlw.... jk.

    I agree that it is wise to abstain from the flow of (mis)information. We do spend way too much of our time and energy on the melodrama of politics or we have people who make up their minds at the last minute based on very little information or rules like, "Am I better off now than I was four years ago?"

    Shane's suggestion about letting the poor decide one's vote is close to my idea, as given in "the house church model for political activism".

    I'd love to see folks use simple rules like "who of the viable candidates got the least in large financial contributions" or "whose campaign was cleaner" to decide how to vote. There ought to be policy wonks that serve to help folks like that, who have better kingdom-building alts to plowing thru much of the prez campaign $pin.

    You neglected to point out that Project Democratic Renewal wd make regional state elections far more interesting. I hope you'll be voting at least for the city council members of Minneapolis. Local races are far more important for us to pay attention to, especially with the recent incorporation of a proportional representation that gives you the right to rank candidates and hopefully elect more city council members who care about the urban poor.
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    That's more or less where I have come out on the voting controversy. Local and state is just fine, but I oughta do plenty in the meantime to ensure that that isn't stifling my or another's political imagination.
    • ^
    • v
    Well, then you shd support PDR, as it will make your local and state votes count for more and then maybe you can join a third party to vote quasi-strategically for a nat'l candidate.
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    I think if we could eliminate the electoral college it would create a political environment that was more conducive to third parties. If I recall my history correctly, part of the reason we have the electoral college is because of slavery. The other part is because the wealthy were afraid of the influence the poor would have on government. Neither reason seems to be a good one. Getting rid of the legacies of slavery would be a really good idea. And I believe it would make this nation just a wee bit more free.
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    Interestingly, in the US constitution, the person who gets the most Electoral College votes is prez -- but the EC runner-up is VP, as I recall... an old way of chastening the big parties and depoliticizing the executive branch.

    Amusingly, I have been wrestling with the no-vote issue for a while, but due to extended domestic and international travel for the past nine weeks, I won't be able to vote this time anyway as I didn't register at my current address in time! I guess God decided that one for me...
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    The problem simply is that it's quite hard to change stuff at the nat'l level and neither major party really has a strong incentive to change the electoral college system, so to make progress in that respect, we need to first empower a host of local third parties to be able to influence the main party politicians.

    dlw
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    Being told that I have a legal right, choice of the two ends of a yardstick and legal DUTY to choose who shall be the ruler against which all things are measured neither give me hope for a better world or joy of life. The Reign of God, here, now and always does. God bless Mark.
    • ^
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    you have the right, but not the duty, unless you find a way to make the exercise of your right a way to assist you in the advancement of the kingship of God in our world.

    I believe I am working towards that ends w. my single issue advocacy.
    dlw
    • ^
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    Open question: How do others feel about non-voting in regards to groups who fought long and hard for access to political avenues, particularly non-whites and women? Maybe for Mark this is already answered in the line " voting is an American sacrament that affirms a fallen system", but I myself struggle with this aspect. My grandfather was a trial lawyer and represented many people of color during the Race Riots in Chicago and Milwaukee (1967), and further back, ancestors worked "safe houses" on the Underground Railroad. I have not voted this year, for various reasons, some of them shared with Mark, many my own, but there is a bit of uneasiness about taking for granted access to the political system (machine) that so many oppressed and ignored people fought for. I feel as though I'm being disrespectful to those who fell in the fight for acknowledgment. Any thoughts?

    I also really like dlw's thoughts on strategic voting, and share a lot of the same sentiment. Keep it local, keep it neighborly.
    • ^
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    I know that Nekeisha Alexis-Baker (who is black and a naturalized citizen) covers this a bit in the book mentioned above. One of the myths about voting is that voting is "how you get your voice heard." The thinking goes: African Americans had to fight to get their voice heard, yet now this privileged white man is saying they should take it for granted or dismiss the political power they've fought for."

    There is something to that, and I know that this issue has been dealt with a bit elsewhere on blog posts by Anthony Smith and David Fitch.

    But it, in my mind, is a con. African Amerians may have the vote, but that doesn't mean that their voice is heard. By the time the ballot comes to the polling places, the choices are few. There isn't much opportunity to speak prophetically beyond the choices offered. Voting is a gesture that seems like it is giving a voice, but the voice it offers is more of a whisper than a shout. There are so many much more powerful ways for folks to be heard.

    Dr. King was prophetic during a time when blacks could vote. His message wasn't simply powerful in that it achieved a more fair and equitable access for black voters. It was powerful in much broader ways. He should serve as an example of what it can mean to use one's voice politically.
    • ^
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    The right to vote includes the right not to vote as well. If one chooses to express their disapproval of the system by not voting they are within their rights to do so. They can join the other 50% of eligible voters who also choose not to vote. Choosing not to vote does not preclude them from voicing their opinions about the government either.
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    I'd rather someone disillusioned just use some simple rule of thumb(like what I mentioned above) or even flip a coin. Why? I see elections as an important irritant in the system and it is good for elections to be "close" and have an element of randomization to them so that those intere$t$ that seek to influence the gov't need to hedge their bets. This tends to attenuate the concentration of economic-political power over time, permitting more opps for more people to have say-so about the use of God's creation. And, since most Xtns now live in the 2/3rds world, it is inevitable that the advancement of the kingship of God will be a consequence of this. (To say nothing of how reduced inequality of political-economic influence also helps to prevent unnecessary wars.)

    It doesn't need to take a lot of time/energy to vote, but it does truly make a diff. We wd never have had GWII if the state of our democracy had not declined seriously, as indicated by the large percentage of the population that doesn't vote.

    dlw
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    I'd put it this way, ultimately in both "spiritual" and "secular" lines of arg, it is far far more important to change people's habits than to get them the right to vote. MLKjr helped to change many of our habits, but we remain unwilling to face the fact that the structural consequences of past racism still exist and inhibit the advancement of the kingship of God.

    If minorities had more exit threats via local third parties, they wd have more voice w. main parties. The Black Community unfortunately got onto the Democratic Bandwagon at a point when the influence of its machine was on the wane(and many other changes impacted lower-skilled workers)...

    dlw
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    A couple of weeks ago I came across an essay of unusual clarity on the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly page on PBS called The Religious Use Of Politics. It can be found here:

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1...

    Mark, I've always thought your position on voting was thoughtful. I don't hear you advocating withdrawal from political life as much as pointing out the illusion that voting is an adequate form of political engagement. I'll be going out to vote today, primarily because here in California there are myriad local & state ballot initiatives, many of them hairbrained & shortsighted, some running quite close in the polls. As a child of the Jim Crow south I will also derive some symbolic satisfaction voting for Barack Obama. But I don't view this task as the crowning glory of my life as a citizen.

    peace
    joseph
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    Thanks Joseph...peace be with you.

    I'm debating how much to be involved with the process today. I'm looking into the local issues to see if my vote is important.
    • ^
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    I stopped voting the sametime I requested to be discharged from the Marines as a Conscious Objector in 1989. Since I could not, in good conscience, kill people for the government - an ultimate symbol of loyalty - I could not as well continue to support their policies which required such loyalties.
    • ^
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    I wd encourage you to consider voting again in the future, as a healthy democracy is a good stop-gap against the imperialistic tendencies of any empire... This is because the economics-politics of war are quite simple, from a concrete perspective it benefits the few at the expense of the many, as such giving the many more voice is more likely to deter war-mongering.

    dlw
    • ^
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    Great thoughts Mark, thanks for sharing them. It makes me torn like Willamon on the voting issue.
    • ^
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    when you said voting was a sacrament you weren't kidding. i am now (11/4/08) more convinced then ever that the cult of the emperor still lives and that it holds our people in bondage.

    today i think i finally realize what it was like to be all those folks i tried to evangelize in mexico during a short term mission trip in high school! no i don't want your god. no i don't think it can give me a better life. no i don't think i am a sinner just because i don't believe as you do. yes i am happy with my life, please get off my porch and don't leave me anything for me to read!
    • ^
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    Hey man,

    I see it like this, one can accept the fact of empire and submit to working w. the system(tho, not according to the dictates/spin of the system) w.o. falling into caesaropapism. But yeah, it is sad how much time and energy gets put into the prez race that cd have been spent loving one's neighbor or paying attention to more local elections in which our votes count far more... For me tho, it's a matter of excess, not enslavement.

    When I was in MX on a similar trip, I remember how our bus driver became a Christian after watching us give out food and clothing to those who really needed it in Monterrey. Making the democratic system "work" and thereby ameliorating income/wealth inequality ain't that different.

    I can only hope that my idea state-level election reform will also upset the apple-cart and give the parties a good kick in the butt in the coming years.
    • ^
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    This blog is unbelievable. I would LOVE to see all of the supporters live in North Korea, or China for a few years. If you keep denying your constitutional rights, thats where we will be headed. If noone voted it would be a autocratic society...That's what you all support?
    • ^
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    There is a rich tradition of Christians throughout the ages resisting various ways of participating in Government. Why do people embue voting with such magical properties...as though if Christians vote, evil is kept in check, but if they do not, dictatorships become inevitable. Christ shows us how to resist evil.

    This blog doesn't tell people not to vote...rather, a number of us share why we're not. Other articles advocate voting...but without illusion. Do you see voting as a civic responsibility in which all good people must engage? Do you see no down sides?
    • ^
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    I'd say it's engrained in us in the US from early on in our public schools...

    I see a commitment to democracy as consistent w. a commitment to try to love one's neighbor as oneself better given the persistent fact that we are all bounded in our altruism for other's whose lives intersect our own.

    The real "heresy" is the way democracy is de-institutionalized, drawing attention away from the fact that it is the habits people have in voting(and the rest of life) that are of far greater significance than the specific system used to determine changes in political leadership. This is why we shdn't be pressing for "democracy" in the rest of the world. It really is something that needs to come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. I sincerely doubt our political system wd have "worked" if it had not been for the Great Awakenings that made it become more dynamic.

    dlw
    • ^
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    let me defend my friends I disagree with...

    It's one thing to choose not to vote, another thing to call for an end to the use of quasi-democratic elections to circulate our political elites and spread out more widely the ability to influence what interests gov't chooses to protect.

    My friends here are committed to living self-sacrificially w.o. hypocripsy. That is in the end far more important for overcoming tyranny and terrorism in all forms than whether and how one votes.
    dlw
    • ^
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    Hello ebaughman

    My friends and I live and have lived in: Uganda under Idi Amin, South Africa under apartheid, Kuwait during both wars, Iraq during the war, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Oman, U.A.E., Egypt, Palestine, China, etc. Some meet secretly, others have been deported from countries (such as Saudi) for their faith, others beaten. We've endured bomb threats on church compounds - and met anyway. We've prayed for the Emir and Parliament of Kuwait and for Saddam Hussein while he was in governance.

    These ideas hold. What does not hold is a desperate attempt at grasping control of the governmental structures for the 'Christian ideal'. Legal or illegal, blessed or cursed, in government or out, God prevails through his people.

    And as for sending the U.S. down to an autocratic regime - let me be blunt. First, does it matter? Yes, but not as much as you think. God is God whatever the government. Secondly, does it matter? Yes, but sometimes strong attempts to destroy the system are needed to heal it. A limb set improperly needs be broken to heal better. A traveler down the wrong path must turn around in order to progress. What the Christ-following/anarchist side of this debate is proposing is that direct action, Christ incarnate in us, is the most holistic means for change, not electoral governance.

    So let us debate, and debate freely, the pros and cons of direct action in addition to or instead of electoral governance. But let us not doubt God's sovereignty or the strength of the church in the face of adversity.
    • ^
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    I wdn't use the word "destroy", tho whenever you change people's habits, things do fall apart.

    I've been in Ukraine and follow Ukrainian politics, we almost went down that path and I believe it is important that we be salt and light in making our democracy work better. This is part of our witness to others. We need not obsess about nat'l elections to participate in this matter. A relatively small group that votes apart from its self-interest and the spin of the system can change things and attract attention from those who sadly do get preoccupied w. the capture of the state and then inevitably get burned-out and callous to such matters.

    dlw
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    Destroy may have been the wrong choice of word, but as I wrote it I was envisioning Gideon (translated, literally, as 'The Destroyer') in Judges 6:

    Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the LORD had said unto him: and so it was, because he feared his father's household, and the men of the city, that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night. And when the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was cast down, and the grove was cut down that was by it, and the second bullock was offered upon the altar that was built. And they said one to another, Who hath done this thing? And when they enquired and asked, they said, Gideon the son of Joash hath done this thing.

    Then the men of the city said unto Joash, Bring out thy son, that he may die: because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove that was by it. And Joash said unto all that stood against him, Will ye plead for Baal? will ye save him? he that will plead for him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar. Therefore on that day he called him Jerubbaal, saying, Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar.
    • ^
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    I operate with a post-babylonian captivity and post-resurrection Xtn world-view that accepts that the powers-that-be will worship "idols" and yet that they also serve a purpose in the advancement of the kingship of God. I need not destroy them, I merely ought to point to Jesus, in all aspects of my life, as the true hope for our future.

    dlw
    • ^
    • v
    Ebaughman's comment about voting raises related issues. If one chooses not to vote for reasons other than sloth then they should be ready to try to explain why they don't vote. Frankly, most voters won't understand. Try explaining why you don't vote to wounded veterans, aging civil rights workers or recent immigrants who have come to this country thru great duress or difficulty. Tell them their vote makes no difference. I personally am not going there.

    As Christians we are members of our communities. Voting is a community activity. This is one of the main reasons why I vote.

    Citizens have the right to vote and to not vote. If one chooses to vote they should be prepared to say why they think it's important. If one chooses not to vote they should be prepared to make their case as well.
    • ^
    • v
    I'd also say that it's not simply black and white. We also must choose what habits/rules guide us in our vote. That is just as important as whether we vote for two reasons.
    1. Shallow Voters have helped to weaken significantly the checks and balances on our gov't in the past.
    2. The system wants us to spend way too much time immersed in the streams of (mis)information, particularly on the candidates in elections where our vote matters the least.

    So it goes both ways, I'd say I am committed to a two-party dominated political system that necessarily keeps my "ideal" from gaining power, simply because this ties me to the mast as a political outsider to focus more on the politics of conversion.

    dlw
    • ^
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    You make two very valid points. The Framers understood that our democratic-republic would only work with an educated and informed populace. The mainstream media has become part of the misinformation problem. They define the subject and parameters of public debate. Anything outside of their box is marginalized.

    The obscure third party candidates I vote for in national elections have zero impact. My voice does have an impact in my local community, however. Mass transit, green initiatives, road construction, police etc are all local issues which are affected by my vote. Besides, standing in the voter line gives one a chance to meet neighbors.
    • ^
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    please check out my idea at "A New Kind of Third Party".

    I'd encourage you to get your local third parties behind state-level election reform 100% and then focus on those elections where they may win and vote quasi-strategically in all other elections.

    The goal is to maximize the influence of us outsiders subject to the constraint of the continuation of a two-party dominated system.

    dlw
    • ^
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    Excellent point about community. I'll be honest - I haven't been in one country long enough to have experienced that as yet, but I'm looking to learn. :)
    • ^
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    Thanks Mark. The last few weeks have been a pain anytime I happen to bring up that I'm not voting this election when asked who I'm voting for. Some people get it, especially if they take the time to ask me questions. But for the most part, like you, I tend to get fairly hostile reactions. I've been told that not voting makes me "stupid", "apathetic" and that I have no right to voice any opinions on what's going on. I admit that for the most part politics aren't generally my cup of tea. I'm a theology guy, I'd much rather discuss the perichoresis in the Trinity than economics or my quibbles with St. Anselm's Satisfaction Theory than this or that bill. It's really only when I begin to contemplate politics theologically that I become outspoken.

    With that said, it's just nice to know that there are others who, having chosen to not vote, share some of the backlash from a culture fully intoxicated on patriotic propaganda.
    • ^
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    56,000,000 people exercised their right to vote for McCain, if you look at exit polling 30% of Republicans did not show, If you do not vote you are politically irrelevant
    • ^
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    Unless, you think you have a good reason not to vote, in which case there still is an incentive for parties to become more relevant for more people, tho our winner-takes-all political elections do not encourage the main parties to court non-voters much.
    dlw
 

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