Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 3

When non-voters are asked why they don’t vote, they usually say something like their vote doesn’t matter: the system is corrupt, or rigged, or won’t make a difference. If the standard for my vote mattering is: the candidate I vote for will win if I vote for them and won’t if I don’t, then these nonvoters are surely right: my vote doesn’t matter.

There was an NPR piece a couple months ago interviewing nonvoters about why they didn’t vote. Buried three-fourths into the 7-minute segment, we hear one interviewee, an African American identified as Raymond Taylor, saying that his vote doesn’t matter because in his district or state the race isn’t close. Then the reporter says:
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country.” (NPR, 2018 Sep 10)
And I thought: Wait a minute! You buried the lede! (Raymond Taylor's story isn't even included at all in the print version on the NPR website.) There’s your story: He wanted to be a part of history.

People don’t vote to make a difference; they vote to be part of something meaningful. A single vote didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, that’s the one and only time Raymond Taylor voted.

We vote to be a part of something. The time Raymond Taylor voted, he did it to be a part of history. For those of us who vote regularly, it need not be historic, but we do it because we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of the body politic, and this means something to us. I add meaning to my life by placing it in the context of something larger called “the people.” Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't.

But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection. Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote. Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens. Disenfranchised literally means not having the vote – but it’s no coincidence that the synonyms of “disenfranchised” also include powerless, passive, disconnected. When people are disenfranchised, they are disconnected from the apparatus of democracy, and when they feel disconnected, they disenfranchise themselves.

When people feel powerless – feel like the system, the people around them, don’t care about them – then they don’t feel they belong, and when they don’t feel belonging, of course they don’t vote.

That’s no easy thing to fix. We could change the laws and make it easier for people to vote. It's very important that we do that. But there were will still be the problem of people not wanting to vote -- and that's the problem of how to foster belongingness.

The task of creating belonging and a sense of community is our task – not for Tuesday but for the rest of our lives. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter describe how they do it. You’ll notice that the example I started with was a face-to-face conversation. Community building is a face-to-face enterprise. People who don’t see your eyes don’t see their belonging.

Brown and Albright have six other points of advice.
  1. Don’t parachute in. Connect with local leaders, develop local partnerships, work through the structures that are there. To build community, you find the community that’s there and build on it.
  2. “Let the local people lead. Ask people what they care about and what their community needs.” Listening. As David Oxberg says in this month’s issue of On the Journey, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening creates belongingness.
  3. Focus on the primaries. “You can’t just show up in September or October. You have to get your hands dirty in local primaries, which happen much earlier in the year. It’s not sexy work, and the rest of the country isn’t paying attention. But the primary is often what matters most.”
  4. Don’t pack your bags after the race is over. If it’s really about belongingness, then it obviously got to be about not abandoning – not treating people as instrumentalities for your electoral purposes.
  5. Embrace difficult conversations. “We never try to convince people they’re wrong or shame them. That doesn’t work. We listen and validate their feelings. We even admit that sometimes we don’t feel like voting. “
  6. Know the culture. If it’s our tendency – and it is our tendency – to minimize cultural differences, then it’s going to be hard to being open to truly adapting to real cultural differences. So improving our own intercultural sensitivity and competency is part of the picture. (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
It’s a lot to bite off, but building belongingness – not just as it relates to voting – is our Unitarian Universalist mission. It’s what we’re here for.

As a first step to thinking about the belongingness that would lead others to vote, let me invite you to reflect on why you vote. You can drop the pretense that your one vote makes a difference. You vote because you belong. Take a moment to reflect on that when you’re in the booth on Tuesday.

A vote is a prayer. I vote, as I pray, as a way of expressing to myself the values I want to live by, of reminding myself of the gratitudes that ground me and the hopes that direct me. Prayers and votes don’t affect God or the world, except insofar as they affect me. They change me. And my life, in myriad ways, then changes the world.

So I invite you cast your ballot bread crumb upon the waters.
You, alone, cause no one’s victory or defeat,
but you join with something larger that does.
You participate in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of yourself into the shared soul of
115 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.

This is part 3 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting
Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting

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