As my apartment started stirring this morning, I asked a question I knew the answer to with feigned innocence. “Who’s voting today?”
Both roommates—who have consistently ranted about “systems of oppression” with scorn—responded predictably. One roommate yelled from the coffee pot, “I forgot to register when I moved!” while the other yelled from the bathroom, “I’m already late for class!” through a mouth full of toothpaste.
Then I opened up my group thread with 21 of my college friends—yeah, those friends, the hyper-opinionated NYU-educated members of the Northeast intelligentsia. “Who’s doing their civic duty today?” I quipped. The one guy in law school in South Carolina responded that he submitted an absentee ballot. Other than that, nothing.
These are the same people I know and love who sit and debate with me for hours over pints and pizza in pubs, railing against “poor doors”, private prisons, socioeconomically inequitable transportation policies, hard time for drug addicts and prostitutes instead of treatment, unequal pay for women, intolerance of gay marriage, and cable monopolies. Like roughly 90% of New Yorkers in 2013, they couldn’t find the time in their Masters of the Universe schedules to vote (an arduous task that took me a total of 7 minutes: 1 minute to find my voting location, 3 minutes to walk there, and 3 minutes to check in and fill in the bubbles). But something tells me they’ll still find the time to watch clips from the Daily Show, Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight, Bill Maher, South Park, or SNL while at work, or read (the headlines of) Huffington Post or Gawker articles and repost them on Facebook with an ardently polemic caption. They’ll somehow find time to hashtag #ferguson and #ericgarner on Instagram and Twitter. Time to pretentiously cite the lessons of 1984, Brave New World, and all those other books they read in high school. Time to chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” next time they’re drunk in Europe or in a bar watching the World Cup. They’ll make time to chastise Bloomberg, Bush, and Obama over a beer in the Village with me. They’ll have time for that.
Where does this disconnect stem from? Is the irony lost on them (isn’t irony supposed to be us NYU hipsters’ forte)? Is it a lack of civic education? Boring social studies teachers? Disengaged parents? A lack of information about how exactly to register and find a voting station? Not knowing the candidates? Not voting is no longer a poor thing, a minority thing, an immigrant thing. Basically, nobody votes. The only chunk of people that vote consistently are the people that, for the most part, already hold all the advantages (see: power). By setting aside those 7 minutes, old whites with salaries above $75,000 have managed to maintain a virtual monopoly over choosing who is in charge. Then everyone else complains about who’s in charge.
I don’t have the solution to this deplorable phenomenon, and I am not here to rework this into a plug for Generation Citizen and all the great work we do. I am simply highlighting that there is only one reason to not vote: you think everything is perfect. If you trust the politicians in office so absolutely that you don’t need to send them any kind of message with your vote, then stay home. But if this is not the case for you, then voting is not just your American duty; it is a rational choice. By voting for or against a candidate—or for or against a party, as I do—you affect stats that affect political currents, even if your one vote does not vote someone in or out this round. It affects where the next round of politicians will be looking for votes, and whom they’ll be catering to. Your vote determines who the politicians need to listen to.
Anyone who opted out of voting today should sit out the political debates in the pubs, pizza parlors, and Facebook posts until 2016. Being an American—believing in America—is a contract. You can make the government and its figureheads cower with the power of a pencil and a ballot. You don’t have to vote for the right person. You don’t have to vote in every race. But treating voting as a chore like laundry on groggy Sundays means you have opted out of the American contract. By choosing not to vote, you have forfeited your right to complain. So next time John Oliver speaks the damn truth because he’s just so good, go ahead and un-copy that link. See you in 2016.
Drew Lombardi is a Program Associate for Generation Citizen New York.