As I write this, America is just four days from choosing its president for the next four years. This has been touted as perhaps the most important election in ‘our’ collective lifetime. If you believe the ads that both candidates have conjured up against the other, it’s important because if you don’t vote or if you vote for the wrong man, you are somehow in league with the devil. But over-the-top claims of evil, incompetence, or both notwithstanding, we should vote because we have the privilege and responsibility to do so in a free country.
I must confess: I didn’t vote in the last election. I was going under the knife on election day for neck surgery and was quite incapacitated the previous few days that I was home from a ten-week trip photographing New Testament manuscripts in the United Kingdom. This time around I have no excuse, and have already done my civic duty (just before another surgery, as it turned out).
I am disturbed by an alarming number of millennials, gen-xers, and others younger than myself who have shown great apathy about their right to vote. I’d like to address just some of the excuses they have offered, and conclude with some final comments.
- “I’m not excited about either candidate.” I’ve never been excited about any candidate for president whom I’ve been allowed to vote for in the past forty years. But that hasn’t stopped me from voting. And for many of those years, early voting had too many restrictions which excluded me. This made election day my one and only option, even though it often was inconvenient. If you have studied the issues (and you should have), you will most likely have formed an opinion about which candidate fits in with your principles better. Even if it’s a slight difference, it’s usually enough to pick one or the other.
- “Voting in this election is choosing the lesser of two evils, but it’s still choosing evil.” You’ll never find a candidate who agrees with you on everything. You’ll never find a spouse who agrees with you on everything. (And if you do, run—he or she is no good for you!) If you’re waiting for utopia to take place, you’re in for a long wait. And it is not choosing evil when you vote for a candidate who has blind spots. It is choosing evil when you decide not to vote because you have removed yourself from the people who are selecting the next leader of the country. By choosing not to vote, you are choosing to do nothing. That may seem safe. After all, when you aim at nothing you always hit your target. As Edmund Burk famously declared, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” If the wrong person is elected and you didn’t vote, you’re contributing to the problem.
- “I’m in a state where candidate A (or candidate B) is a shoe-in; my vote won’t count anyway.” That’s fallacious reasoning. This is going to be a very close election—very close. And even in solid blue states or solid red states, the spread is almost never more than 10% between the candidates. With enough people having the attitude that you have who belong to the same party, the results in your state could flip on election day. Let’s say that there are 1.75 million people that the pollsters anticipate will vote Democrat in your state, and two million who they say will vote Republican in your state. That’s a hefty spread—12.5%. But what if 10% of the anticipated Republican voters decide not to bother since it’s a done deal, and just 5% more Democrats than anticipated turn up? Your state and all its electoral-college votes go to the Democrat. And if you’re one of those Republicans who chose not to vote, you only have yourself to blame.
In the past fifty-two years, the percentage of eligible voters who actually voted in a presidential election ranges from 49% to 63%. The numbers steadily declined from 1960 (63%) to 1988 (50%), but have looked more like the Dow Jones Industrial Average (going up and down) in the last several election cycles. The 1960s all had percentages in the 60s; no decade, nor any election since, has matched that. This means that effectively your one vote is worth almost two. (Is it a coincidence that beginning in 1971, the legal voting age dropped from 21 to 18, with a corresponding lower percentage ever since?) And what if 90% of one party were to vote and only 60% of the other party were to vote? The 90% side would win every election, every state.
Furthermore, even if you have no opinion about which presidential candidate is better, you should know that there are many candidates on the ballot. Senators, congressmen and congresswomen, judges, and many other kinds of candidates are on the ballot, not to mention amendments and laws touching our lives in very personal ways. In Frisco, Texas, where I live, there were a couple of amendments just for the city that were on the ballot. Does your vote not count for these candidates or these amendments?
- “My spouse and I would have voted for different candidates, so we decided both to stay home to cancel out each other’s vote.” Again, there are more issues and candidates to vote on than just the office of president. Is your marriage in such disarray that you cannot agree on even one item on the list? Further, if you don’t vote, you in a real sense give up your right to complain about who gets elected. And it’s an American pastime to complain about our government!
As Christians, we are supposed to pray for those in positions of authority. And to the extent that we can effect change through peaceful means, we are given that right as well. If governmental authorities are ministers of God, as Paul says in Romans 13, then the rights that they give us in a free society to vote is one that we should not neglect. We actually have the right to vote for who will be the governmental ministers of God! Christians have become more civic minded in recent years, recognizing that though we are not of the world, we are in it. And part of this fact implies that we should not neglect the privilege, even the responsibility, to vote. We are to be salt and light in our society. Gone are the days when Christians thought en masse that their sole duty to society was to escape from it and/or condemn it. Although we recognize that salvation cannot come through the government, we also recognize that we are in a society that has collectively a distorted Imago Dei, but an Imago Dei nonetheless. We should affirm the things that our society does right, and address the things it does wrong. But to restrict ourselves to our own holy huddle, to not get involved in righting wrongs in our society, is sin. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the message of salvation, but the implications of the gospel are often worked out in our relationship to society. Working for a better society is both pre-evangelism and post-evangelism. I urge you to consider it a sacred duty of yours to vote. Good men and women have died to grant us that privilege. We do not honor them when we stay home on election day.