10 ways you're canceling out your ballot
Because voting doesn't only happen on election day.
According to recent Gallup polls, the most important issues for voters in 2020 are healthcare, national security, gun policy, education, and the economy. Moving from extremely important to very important, 74% of Americans say infrastructure influences their vote. And among the issues most divided along party lines? Climate change, distribution of wealth and income, race relations, LGBT rights, and foreign affairs. And we still haven't touched on immigration, abortion, the federal budget deficit, taxes, or trade. Not to mention the makeup of the Supreme Court, religious liberty, crime and punishment, food security, indigenous relations, or energy independence.
So, voting matters, a lot. And this is still a point worth making because do you know where the US ranks on a list of the world's top 10 developed countries with the highest voter turnout? Nowhere. It ranks at number 11. While 87% of Belgians, 82% of Swedes, and 77% of South Koreans voted in their last election, only 55% of Americans showed up. And not voting is like crafting a perfect outfit but letting someone else pick your shoes. Shoes can make or break an outfit and, over time, you've found your favorite things to wear. You know what fits you and how you want to feel. You know what looks good and what message you want your outfit to send. Why let someone else pick your shoes?
But here's the main point: Your election year ballot is only your shoes. If come voting day, you pick hand-stitched Italian leather pumps but every other day you wear yoga pants, your outfit is not going to work. This is to say that your ballot is merely one (very important) expression of your vote. But other expressions are shaped by the decisions you make every day. For example:
10. Your Retirement Savings
Of those who routinely invest in retirement funds, the majority don't actually know what their savings are being used to support. Many investment firms offer an array of portfolios categorized by risk and counsel average people to choose conservatively for reliable growth. While this is not necessarily bad advice, it often translates into investing in pharmaceuticals, nuclear weapons, private prison operators, tobacco companies, gun stocks, and so on. If you don't support profiting from detaining children at the border, your retirement savings shouldn't either.
9. Your Car
Besides a house, a car is one of the most significant purchases we make, and it matters what we choose. Do you want to see American brands thrive or do you want to support American manufacturing jobs? There's a difference. In Cars.com's 2018 American-Made Index, four Hondas made the top 10 list. Your best bet to support both might be a Jeep. Then there are quality, innovation, and environmental considerations to make. Do you vote for environmental conservation but drive a gas guzzler around town?
8. Your Travel Choices
If the distribution of wealth and income is important to you, or you feel the conservation of natural resources, especially in desert-regions, matters, it might be hypocritical to plan a vacation that benefits casino moguls in a city where the Guardian explains policies have created a hellish future: Las Vegas. On the other hand, if you support protecting national parks and forests, visiting one is not a bad place to start.
7. Your Grocery List
Your grocery list is much more political than you might think. Are monarch butterfly habitat destruction, subsidence in California, or Amazon rainforest deforestation on your list? Think avocados, almond milk, or pineapples. If you support local, ethical farming, your grocery list should, too. Next time you shop, ask yourself, are you voting for recyclable or plastic packaging, pesticides or organics, factory farms or small farms?
6. Your Bank
The role of banks extends way beyond money. Research shows they affect the world around you. Banks promote growth and innovation through business loans. They conduct research, collect data, share trends, and advise businesses on strategic decision-making. They also lobby the government and shape their own definitions of corporate social responsibility. They create blacklists of industries with moral or financial ambiguity such as cannabis or pornography. The types of businesses your bank funds (or doesn't) should be aligned with your vote, as should the options a bank offers to Average Joe. If your ballot supports legalizing marijuana but your bank won't lend to that industry, is your money canceling out your vote?
5. Local Elections
There is no level of government that is more directly responsible for serving your community than your local elected officials. Among other things, they are responsible for local schools, sanctuary jurisdiction status, policing and public safety, rent costs and affordable housing, public transit, alcohol and marijuana ordinances, city colleges, job training programs, and recycling options. When you vote in local elections, local governments have significant power to amplify your voice. They can even take the lead when the federal government fails to act. Did you know policies such as women’s suffrage, minimum wage, environmental protection, and marriage equality all began at the local and state level? Not voting in local elections is a huge disservice to the power of your vote on a national ballot.
4. Your Religion
It's not surprising to learn that religion is a determinant of voter behavior, but it is important to understand how much lobbying and electoral influence religious groups hold. As churches become more overtly political, the question, according to NPR, is, "what political issues do you see through the lens of your faith, and on what issues do your political views and religious convictions diverge?" This is important because while many religious individuals have come to accept gay marriage or abortion as an individual's choice, as a congregation, they vote differently. It's up to you to ensure that faith-based lobbying efforts don't undermine your vote.
3. Your Shopping Habits
It's true that dollar voting has its drawbacks. It's not particularly democratic since, if every dollar is a vote, some of us have a lot more votes than others. And for those of us with fewer votes, how much can our spending power shape consumerism trends? The truth is we don't know. Our freedoms as consumers are constrained by the products and information made available to us. But increasingly, small brands are emerging wearing their hearts on their sleeves and asking us to support their cause. And ethical consumerism is as much about building community as it is about cultivating change. To quote Vogue, "The measure of our souls isn’t to be taken in what we buy, but what we do... sometimes, even to our own bafflement, we wear our hearts on our poufed sleeves."
2. Charity and Activism (or lack thereof)
If you want to support public radio and television, arts and culture, scientific research, peace missions, humanitarian relief, low-income housing, or any other social cause, your time, monetary, and in-kind donations are as important in empowering the philanthropic organizations and activists fighting for policy change as your ballot. According to The New York Times, "there is no doubt that the U.S. needs smart, energetic, courageous activists with integrity and vision to push politicians and galvanize the people when elected officials cannot provide the radical vision or critical support to do so." Activists and charities are politically essential to advancing social causes, thereby should be an important expression of your vote.
1. Uninformed Voting
Studies of electoral consequences of political ignorance consistently show that uninformed voters systematically vote out of line with their preferences; when citizens become more informed, they systematically shift their partisan preferences; and American public opinion and elections could change dramatically if everyone were fully informed. According to Forbes:
"If voters are poorly informed about government policy, they will often make poor decisions. They often support counterproductive or contradictory policies... Voters also often reward and punish elected officials for events they did not cause, such as short-term economic trends and even droughts and sports team victories (all of which have been shown to influence election results)... Beyond that, there are a host of issues where governments routinely pursue harmful and misguided policies that appeal to relatively ignorant voters, even though policy experts across the political spectrum recognize their flaws."
This begs the question: is uninformed voting worse than not voting at all? The New Yorker reminds us that Plato, Hobbes, and Mills also pondered that question in centuries past. But we can avoid that slippery road to disenfranchisement by committing to educate ourselves before we vote.
Should we boil this down to one takeaway? You have the power to vote beyond the ballot box every day. Embrace it.