By Josh Kelety
Originally published in the November 2014 issue.
I think it’s safe to say that many of us are very disillusioned with our political process. And understandably so. Given the constant barrage of reports showing how wealth inequality in the US is worse than ever, how twice a week a black person is killed by a white police officer, and how horrifyingly quickly the effects climate change are banging at our front door, it doesn’t stretch of the imagination to wonder why so many people, especially young adults, are jaded with participating in politics.
Well, despite your pretty-justifiable instincts to say “I’m not voting, my ballot won’t make a difference anyway” and/or revel in political idealism by declining to choose between the lesser of two evils or refusing to acknowledge the existence of the imperialist state, you still should vote.
We’ve been brought into a world where we are subject to the control of the government, where public policy and the bureaucrats who create it have a very tangible effect on our day-to-day lives. Voting is a sanctioned way of influencing governance. And there are good reasons to want to have influence. The way Washington pays its bills and how taxpayer money is appropriated should have you up in arms.
Because of our regressive tax system, our state disproportionately places the burden of keeping our buses running and schools open on the poor and working class. Because of elected politicians, our State Legislature gave the largest corporate tax subsidy in history to the Boeing corporation (to keep jobs in WA) while funding for all levels of public education across Washington has declined substantially. Ironically, Boeing has begun shipping jobs out of the state.
And while we don’t have control over Eastern Washington voters and their consistent right-leaning voting tendencies (a Republican majority in the State Senate is resistant to changes in Washington tax code), King County is the most populous county in Washington. This gives us enormous leverage in influencing governor elections and statewide ballot measures and referendums—as, for example, in 2012 with I-74’s (same-sex marriage) passing. In the same vein, poor voter turnout has underutilized our region’s electoral power, which probably played a part in I-1098’s (a push to introduce an income tax on the wealthy) crash and burn in 2010.
I don’t blame those who point to gridlock and [legal] corruption in the Federal government as reasoning for not voting. We have the ‘choice’ of voting for candidates from two political parties who are both neck deep in campaign donations from Wall Street and corporate America. Our presidents are not democratically elected, i.e. the electoral college, a system in which a small number of political party appointed ‘electors’ choose the nominee, regardless of the popular vote.
And, as a recent Princeton study which compared the influence of an average citizen to that of corporations and special interest groups in Federal policymaking found, the American political process resembles an oligarchy much more than it does a actual democracy.
While local politics certainly aren’t devoid of the corrupting effects of money, we have a much more realistic chance of influencing governance at the state and local level. We can put citizen-driven initiatives and referendums on the ballot, elect city council members and state representatives and then, with relative ease, go bang on their office doors when they don’t do as we see fit. And in local elections, every vote counts, as was evident in Sea-Tac’s 2013 initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour, which won by a mere 77 votes.
By the time you read this the deadline for voting in the November 4th general election will come and gone, but you should know what was on the ballot anyways. Aside from congressional and senatorial elections, there was I-592, a measure to expand mandatory background checks to any and all gun sales in the State, as well as I-1351, which would reduce class sizes in all K-12 grades to help improve educational quality. Closer to home, socialist climate Scientist Jess Spear ran against Democratic incumbent (House Speaker) Frank Chopp for the position of representing Seattle’s 43rd district in the legislature, and the county had to decide on whether to pass Prop 1 and generate much needed revenue for Metro buses. Basically, a lot of important stuff required your attention.
Unfortunately, voter turnout has been dismally low, especially in midterm non-presidential elections. In the 2010 midterm elections, only 49% of Washington residents of voting age filled out ballots. National turnout in 2010 was even worse, topping off at 37% of potential voters according to the Pew Research Center. In the 2013 Seattle general election only 34% of the city’s registered voters mailed in ballots, even with eye-catching mayoral and city council races, while the Seattle Times dubbed statewide turnout “the lowest in a decade”.
Nationally those who vote versus those who don’t run parallel to age, class, and racial divides. From 2008-2012 wealthier voters have consistently turned out in higher numbers than the poor ones. According to the Demos think tank, in 2010 99% of the wealthiest 1% of Americans voted and 61% of those making $150,000 and above participated. Compare that to the 43% of eligible voters making between $30,000 to $39,000 who made it to the polls, as well as the meager 26.7% of those making $10,000 or less.
In the same election, 51% of potential voters over the age of 30 cast ballots compared to 21% of those aged 18-29 (as reported by nonprofitvote.org). White turnout dominated at 49%, black closely trailing at 44%, with Asian and Hispanic both coming in at around 31%. The point being, those who have traditionally held positions of power in this nation are the ones who are most feverishly exercising their democratic rights.
But low voter turnout cannot be entirely attributed to apathy. The American political process has, from the beginning and by design, not included everyone. In 1776 only property owners (white males) over the age of 21 could vote in elections in order to preserve capitalistic interests. Women were barred from voting until 1920, Native Americans until 1924 (though many states continued to obstruct indigenous voter turnout) and African Americans had to fight tooth and nail to get to the voting booths—and continue to do so, with obstruction coming in the form of voter ID requirements which disproportionately alienate minorities and the poor from turning out to vote. In Washington felons are denied voting rights until they finish their sentence, along with anyone else in prison and on parole or probation.
However, we do live in a State where ballots are conveniently mailed right to our doorsteps. So when we don’t take that thirty minutes out of our day to do a little research and fill our ballots, we’re doing a huge favor for the men in suits who run the world. They are more than happy with continuing voter apathy, especially among the poor, minorities, and young people, who all tend to lean to the left politically.
I’m not saying we all should only vote for Democrats. But even within our modern oligarchy we still have some degree of democratic power which we should utilize.
And we shouldn’t stop there. No victories won by movements for social and economic justice have ever been accomplished by simply lining up in orderly and polite rows at the ballot boxes. You can thank the fast food workers who risked their livelihoods and went on strike in protest of low wages back in 2013 for Seattle’s soon to be $15/an hour minimum wage.
You shouldn’t rely solely on the system to independently deliver justice, nor trust it to begin with. But definately use it to your advantage. So next time around, vote. And then go occupy the Olympia State House with your pitchforks held high, screaming “To hell with the status quo”.
Register to vote here: http://www.kingcounty.gov/elections/register.aspx