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The Right to Not Vote

If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood association meeting or a church committee meeting, you’ve observed something close to true direct democracy. When a decision needs to be made, a vote is taken. All those in favor of the proposition say, “Aye.” All those opposed say, “Nay.” Everyone gets a say, and the simple majority wins. It’s an effective way to do things on a small scale. However, this is nearly impossible on a larger scale, which is why the United States functions as a republic and not a direct democracy. We elect representatives to do the debating and policy-making on our behalf.  

Going back to the example of the neighborhood meeting, there is one other thing I want to point out. When votes are taken, the leader of the meeting usually gives three voting options– for, against, and those abstaining. In this case, not voting is an important part of the system. If you cannot decide on one side or the other, you are rightfully entitled to cast no vote at all. This is not a wasted vote. If you aren’t certain of a particular position, you don’t want to be the deciding vote. In a direct democracy, one vote can tip the balance either way. So not voting is a powerful statement itself.   

The Situation

As we approach election season in the midst of a surreal combination of a global pandemic, massive unemployment, and protests for racial justice, I want to propose that not voting may in fact be a legitimate political option. Personally, I expect the coming presidential debates to mutate into a theater of the absurd. Having been through this process once before with President Trump, we already know the spectacle he brings to the election cycle. Once the mudslinging and negative campaigning hits a fever pitch, I speculate that we will end up wading through a media swamp of Joe Biden’s personal dealings–whether that be whatever happened in the Ukraine or allegations of sexual misconduct toward women. Considering that I have never been entirely convinced that either major political party fully represents my values, beliefs, and positions, what does one do when presented with a sharply binary choice? Decide to vote for an independent or third party? Begrudgingly cast a vote for one of the two major parties? Or does one choose to abstain?

Duty vs. Right

Proposing the idea of not voting makes many people upset–on both sides of the political divide. As I see it, folks believe that voting is a duty. If you don’t vote, you are lazy and irresponsible. However, voting is not a duty; it is a right. A duty is something you are obligated to do. If you don’t do it, there is a penalty. Paying taxes is a duty. If you don’t pay, the IRS will catch up with you someday, and you will pay. Jury duty is a duty. They don’t ask you if you want to sit on a jury. You just have to do it if your number comes up. For men, registering for selective service is a duty. If you don’t register, there are consequences.

On the other hand, voting is a right. A right is something you are legally allowed to do, but there is no penalty for not doing it. For example, we have the right to own a gun in this nation, which means you also have the right to not own a gun. We have the right to assemble peacefully and choose our own religious beliefs, which also means that you have the right to keep to yourself and choose no religious belief system at all. This is how a right works. Voting is a right. You have the right to vote your conscience, or you have the right to not vote at all.

Choosing to Not Vote

I say this because I regularly choose to not vote, and I would describe myself as apolitical. I have been criticized for this position in the past by fellow believers. I can vividly remember sitting in a coffee shop with a pastor who argued vehemently that I was being spiritually foolish in my choice. To his credit, I found some of his points persuasive, and I did actually vote in a primary after our conversation. But I only voted for the purpose of opposing a certain unnamed candidate that I found morally reprehensible. In general, however, I choose to abstain. 

Abstaining does cause concern for many people. On the surface, it appears as if you are being permissive of social or political wrongs. Our current public discourse on racial justice presses this point. One must be actively pro or anti, anything less is not neutrality. As the trendy saying goes, “Silence is violence.” Since the rise of the Christian moral majority movement, believers have felt this way about voting. There is no neutrality, and every choice plays into a cosmic battle between good and evil. As I’ve heard numerous times, “You should at least go and vote for the lesser of two evils.” This, of course, for many believers means casting a vote for a Republican due, almost solely, to their position on abortion. However, in this particular election cycle, I am nearly certain that anyone except the Republican candidate is preferable. 

In John 18:33-38, Jesus clearly explains that his kingdom is “not of this world.” If his kingdom were of this world, his disciples would be political activists. In the historical context of unjust Roman oppression, this means they would be violent, revolutionary zealots. However, since his kingdom is not of this world, the disciples of Jesus do not take political action, even when their Lord is wrongfully accused, imprisoned, and crucified. As I see it, it is entirely rightful for me to abstain from voting this year (or to possibly vote if my conscience ultimately moves me in that way). My primary commitment to the Lord simply won’t allow me to be entangled in partisan politics. I respect that there will be disagreement on this topic, as each person’s conscience is different, but this is how I see things. Each believer has to decide for himself or herself how they approach this topic, but I propose that not voting is a position that one can take with conviction.

Featured image from Flickr of locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (USDA). 

Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett is a bi-vocational house church pastor and adjunct faculty member. He teaches classes at several local colleges in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing.

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