What if no one voted?: Assessing the power of the protest non-vote

Ernie Fletcher

Ernie Fletcher

“I did not vote because there was nobody on the ballot whom I wished to help elect. I could not bring myself to submit again to the indignity of trying to pick the least undesirable candidate; nor did I want to contribute to the ‘mandate’ of a new governor, who would be carried into office by corporate contributions, and whose policies I would spend the next four years regretting or opposing.”
—Wendell Berry,
on the May 27 primary,
The Courier-Journal,
July 2, 2007

The simple concession speech offered by Wendell Berry, announcing in the form of a letter to the editor in The Courier-Journal five weeks after our most recent primary that he had not voted because he could no longer trade principle for pragmatism, set off a debate about voting here that would ultimately require him to announce, in a separate story months later, that yes, he had decided to vote in the general election two weeks from now, despite his unease with the options. Such secession is more often bar fodder, but this was Wendell Berry, a man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of the small farmer and the philosophy of agriculture, that intellectual space where humans and their sustenance should connect, but rarely do anymore. He’s been preaching activism for years.

     Despite recanting on his call for abstinence at the voting booth as a form of protest, Berry’s message remained strong and direct: The Democratic candidate for governor, Steve Beshear, does not represent Kentucky’s progressive voters. He is weak, if not acquiescent, on mountaintop removal mining, Berry’s big issue. More, though, Beshear appears to be another white-haired, whitebread retread heading to Frankfort so we don’t have to. That really burns people who see this election — mainly because of Fletcher’s misdeeds — as a wide-open door to advance something more progressive than a bullshit “clean coal” bill past all the standard thinkers in the capitol.

     This is a largely symbolic gubernatorial race at a time in Kentucky politics that feels to some like the first winds are catching the sails after four years of bitter doldrums. But where do you go when the most enthusiasm you can muster for “your candidate” is that he might not take us further backward?

If your next-door neighbor, who is not Wendell Berry, told you one day over the fence line that she’d decided not to vote because she found no candidate progressive enough, conservative enough or whatever enough, you may briefly consider the proposition before you carry about the watering of your garden. It may stick with you a little, and once you Google the candidates and find out that they don’t care for your core issues, you may also decide not to vote. You may tell a few friends, and perhaps one of three will heed your calling, while the other two rap behind your back about what an idiot you are. Or you may think, “Jesus, this country really is doomed. This neighbor of mine is highly educated, well paid and so sick of the two-party system that she has negotiated with her conscience an alliance of complete withdrawal. What else is there?”

     Indeed. But when Wendell Berry, a moral force who has written a stack of masterful books implicitly about the importance of involving oneself in political causes, fires an alarmingly brief, coarse letter to the state’s largest daily newspaper to announce that he has given up on the Democrats because the only progressive one, Jonathan Miller, has left the race for reasons of political expediency, you have to wonder about some things. First, what’s up with Wendell Berry? Second, why would he announce this to the world and, by logical extension, the state’s voters? Third, is there any merit to the protest non-vote? And fourth, is he trying to tell me something?

What Wendell Berry appeared to be saying was that the era of the pragmatic vote should end. He was getting some frustration off his chest, sure, but the man is clearly aware of his own influence, and the idea that such a profound statement would remain in a vacuum is ludicrous.

     So what of the possibility that voters could be so turned off by their lack of choice in a race like the Beshear-Fletcher gubernatorial bout that 1) They decide not to vote, and 2) They decide this in an organized fashion, creating a potential electoral force?

     To be clear, the idea is not to gather all the current non-voters under the same banner and attempt to organize an electoral coup; rather, it is that those who already vote — those who the two parties count on to show up on Election Day — could be persuaded to stay home by the idea that their absence, taken as a whole, would have such a negative impact as to hand victory to their opposition. It is the classic principled stand, and it is based on achieving long-term change in your preferred party, not losing four years to the worse of two evils.

     The protest non-vote, like the third-party vote, is a rejection of the two-party system, a hot-wiring to jolt your preferred party back to recognition.
     Often such movements occur as campaigns, organized efforts to boycott the vote, says Emily Beaulieu, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who studies election boycotts around the world.
     “Of those people who are inclined to show up, if we wanted to influence them to stay home, there are really two ways to do it,” she says.

“One is to pay them, flat-out pay them. That’s happened and it continues to happen. The other is to get some influential individuals and run a full-scale campaign.”
     Examples of this are bountiful in governments with proportional representation. In the United States, however, the protest non-vote is more akin to a third-party candidacy — narrowly focused, mission-driven and largely unsuccessful.

“With third-party candidates, by virtue of the mechanical effect that the voting rules we use have, and the psychological effect that has on individuals who start to talk about things like wasting their vote, support of third-party candidates really does end up being more like a protest vote,” Beaulieu says.

     Voter boycott is an act of political sabotage. Many Democrats still despise Ralph Nader because, they say, had he not won nearly 3 percent of the vote in 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore would be president and our country wouldn’t be fucked up beyond recognition right now. This appears to others to be the establishment crying sour grapes. Had the Democratic Party been responsive to what was clearly a crucial portion of its constituency, the counterargument goes, Al Gore might have won. Or perhaps the Dems would’ve pushed a less wooden candidate who wasn’t burdened by the fallacious moral outcry over the previous administration, one who actually responded to the things Nader was saying about healthcare and foreign policy — talking points similar to what you hear from the current field of Democratic presidential candidates.

     “I think third-party candidates, to the extent that they are successful, do reflect some dissatisfaction with the two major parties in the short run,” says Linda Gugin, a professor of political science at Indiana University Southeast. “Those who tend to have an impact tend to be short-lived.”

     Nader is also an example of how the long-term ambitions of a protest vote can be defused, Beaulieu says. The relative success of his 2000 candidacy had the unfortunate effect of legitimizing some gripes by elite Democrats: By pointing to the atrocities of the Bush administration, the party could embolden voters against George W. Bush in 2004, if not for John Kerry, effectively eliminating the space for a serious third party.

     Many countries allow boycotting parties the same media access as major parties. The thought is, without a voter turnout requirement or proportional representation, the less voters there are, the better for the ones in power.

Forty percent of registered voters turned out for the 2003 gubernatorial race. Fletcher beat Democrat Ben Chandler, now a member of the U.S. House, 55-45. That means a little more than 20 percent of those eligible to vote for Fletcher actually did.

     Turnout for the May primary was more like 20 percent, and Steve Beshear got considerably more votes from Democrats (in a field of seven) than Gov. Fletcher pulled from Republicans (in a field of three) — yet another sign of inevitability in the Nov. 6 contest. And nationwide, according to U.S. Census figures, the 2004 presidential race was good for turnout: 58 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot, and 89 percent of registered voters did.

     Still, a little more than half the country is voting. And in that context, Kentucky’s rates are even more miserable.
Does this appear to be a functioning democracy?

     “It comes down to, the very people who would most benefit from coming out to the polls are usually the least likely to turn out,” says Laurie Rhodebeck, political science professor at the University of Louisville who studies U.S. elections.
     Some elections have turnout requirements (Kentucky and federal elections do not). The state of Washington has one for school district bond elections, and Russia used to have such a requirement, until parliament voted to remove it last year, a move intended to shore up power and support for President Vladimir Putin.

     “Were there a turnout requirement for the gubernatorial election, an organized voter boycott could be effective,” Beaulieu says.
     Such a requirement might be a first step in broadening our electoral horizons, but it would be a small one. Third parties and voter boycotts often appear to address specific issues — in Berry’s case, mountaintop removal mining. Tangentially, though, they’re aimed at cracking the two-party system, a problem more the result of the voting rules, says Beaulieu. To change that would require a more radical shift than is likely anytime soon in America.

     To wit: The governorship is one seat, rather than an inclusive representative council. There is no voter turnout requirement, and the fewer voters that candidates have to persuade, the better for them. Third, it’s winner-take-all. Boycotts and third parties in a gubernatorial race would have to be extraordinary to parlay any power; by design, our electoral system emboldens two strong, large parties.

     “What (a boycott) really results in is a lot of rhetoric,” Beaulieu says. “If the way you still get elected for that one position is the same, why do you actually have to change?”
     Gugin is dubious about the power of a non-vote.

     “I think that, if it’s going to happen where non-voting makes a difference, it has to come from more than just one person, no matter how well known they are,” she says. “I think it has to come from a group, an organized effort that says that if enough people fail to vote, it would send a signal to say something’s wrong with the system.”

What if the signal being sent right now, by the ever-lower voter turnout figures, is that of an electoral system in distress? The most powerful, unconvinced element in the American voting system today is the non-voter: He is a close second — if not first, depending on the year — on the national scene, and almost always the winner in Kentucky elections.

     Voter dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement is high in America. Some people are lazy and don’t care who represents them. Others refuse to vote on principle. How many are there? Is there an unorganized mass of boycotters engaging in a kind of latent protest?

     Perhaps Wendell Berry came to the same conclusion that most engaged voters do after momentarily ceding their choice in protest: We seem to be stuck with what’s here, so why not keep plugging away within the traditional framework. Of course, that’s also what’s keeping us here in this low-brain territory of empty, smack-talking campaign rhetoric, where 40-percent turnout in a gubernatorial election seems natural and the candidates turned out by the two major parties are cloned and copied every four years for us to gargle and swish around awhile — and then, ultimately, swallow.  

Contact the writer at
[email protected]