Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.
It's been an exciting two year buildup to the election that is now days away. It's been a season full of twists and surprises. However, the largest surprise of this election for me wasn't anything that happened on the campaign trail. A few months ago I learned my sister's boyfriend does not vote in elections. As I've tried to tolerate and even accept his lifestyle choice, I've spent some time reflecting on this segment of the population - which has always mystified me - the non-voter.
Shortly after the 2000 election I spoke with a number of people who voted differently than I did and had no apparent justification for doing so. I once felt this was the most sinful group of US citizens - the uninformed voter. At the time I felt that I'd rather have an uninformed voter become a non-voter. However, I have since come to appreciate that even these uniformed voters have room to grow. They often feel enough guilt about their status as an "uniformed voter" that they are willing to put at least some effort into changing. I respect that these people are at least putting an effort into their responsibilities as a citizen, not as much of an effort as I would like or feel would be truly helpful to the process, but it's a start. Whereas I once feared this group's existence would cancel out my vote - I now applaud that they bothered to show up at all.
There is of course the group of voters who simply disagree with me. This is the group most people claim to have a sense of disconnect with - voters on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as yourself. I will continue to try to educate and persuade these voters to move closer to where I stand on that ideological spectrum. I will continue to have a number of discussions and arguments with this group, but I have a lot of respect for their commitment to the election process and can certainly relate to their passion.
This brings me back to that mysterious non-voting segment of the population. I've heard a lot of arguments from these folks on why they've decided to skip out on this part of their obligations as a US Citizen. With a few exceptions of people who are unable to vote for legal or ageist reasons - which are out of their control - I have yet to hear a convincing or even respectable argument from a non-voter.
The one excuse that I have heard, which I'm incredibly sympathetic to, are folks who have been institutionally kept from voting. This has happened through some of the new voter ID acts, "cleaning" of voter lists done by states or through generations of oppression and disempowerment, which is not easily unlearned as a colleague pointed out. Having been privileged enough in my own life to have avoided all of these things, I have a lot of compassion for folks facing these barriers. However, I think a great response to these unethical behaviors is to show them that you're going to vote despite them. If you do happen to run into any barriers in voting, I encourage you to contact the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) or online at: www.866ourvote.org
Probably the most popular is that they don't feel informed enough to make a decision. Rather than explore the, as they perceive it, uninteresting world of politics - they'd rather avoid the whole thing. Some even fear that their uneducated participation may mess things up. So far I have yet to hear this from someone who failed to pass middle school, is seeking asylum in a cave or is somehow cut off completely from civilization. As such, this is a pretty pathetic excuse. To me, it's like saying "I was going to put gas in my car, but I wasn't sure which of the three types was best, so I just decided to skip the gas station altogether."
There is so information to help inform voters online (such as NYAC's Queer the Vote - www.queerthevote.org), on TV (although I personally think this is a poor source of information), in newspapers, in your mail, at libraries and many other places that you almost have to intentionally go out of your way to avoid it these days. Clearly access to this information is not the issue. I always have a hard time believing the whole "I don't have the time" argument as these people had the time to think out their arguments for not voting, and are taking the time to convey it to me, so right there is a window you could reclaim and utilize for this cause. I suspect if we took an hour by hour look at a person's day - we could find a couple of hours in the days left before the election to squeeze in some education on the people who would like to influence the future direction of your life. It may not be the most exciting time spent, but as an adult, sometimes you need to accept your responsibilities and pay the price of time.
Another popular argument is that an individual's vote makes no difference. If everyone believed that their vote made no difference than getting someone elected would only require themselves showing up with a ballot on Election Day. Clearly an individual's vote matters. If your self-confidence is so low that you even manage to decrease the value of your vote, I suggest seeking help to address some larger issues. As we saw with the 1960 and 2000 elections, an individual vote can have a large impact on the outcome of elections.
The last popular argument that I hear, and perhaps the most amusing to me, is that government isn't important enough in their lives. I completely understand how boring politics can be and I agree that some of the federal government's policies don't always hit close to home. However, just because something is boring, doesn't make it any less important in your life. My tax returns are pretty boring, but I bet if I avoided it every year I would be reminded by the IRS of just how important they are. When you consider that 70% of the government that effects your day-to-day life is actually local and state government - it's even easier to see the impact on the world around you. What is funny is that this argument usually includes a long list of other things they're more worried about - such as keeping their job or being able to pay their mortgage - that the government has a lot of influence over.
With the election days away, I urge you, please, do not become a member of the hard to comprehend non-voter population. It is one of your most important and defended duties as a citizen. Personally, I would support individuals having to pay higher taxes for neglecting this civic obligation (please note that NYAC has not taken a position on this issue). To keep family peace, I'm going to avoid treating my sister's boyfriend like the sort of nomad I now see him as in my head. However, anyone else who opts out of their obligations this November should be prepared to defend their mistake until they have a chance to correct it two years from now.
NYAC is the national social justice organization working with LGBTQ young people to strengthen the role of young people in the LGBTQ rights movement. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, NYAC's full-time professional staff supports local, state and national organizations working to engage LGBTQ youth. For more information about our work, please visit www.nyacyouth.org.