You may, as you read this, be feeling rather pleased with yourself. Perhaps you’ve already voted and have received your little sticker — which you may present to St. Peter as your ticket through the pearly gates. Perhaps you believe he’ll only let you in if you voted for the correct candidate. You could hardly be blamed.
For the last month or so, every other TV, web, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook ad has had the same message: VOTE! Some are accompanied by a tell of some sort that what they mean is: VOTE! (for Democrats). Every Sunday, Russell Wilson, arguably the best player in the National Football League, stares into my eyes and self-assuredly announces “I am” and, after a short but pregnant pause, “a voter” no less than six times. Chipotle is blasting out emails urging their aficionados to “chi-vote-le.”
It looks as if turnout will be much, much higher than it was four years ago today. Millions, and quite possibly tens of millions of votes higher. Most would unreservedly tell you that they think this is a good thing, and maybe it is. Maybe many Americans have studied the issues carefully and will cast thoughtful votes that reflect their values. For everyone for whom that’s the case, regardless of which candidates they voted for, I’m glad they made it to the polls. But I don’t see anything to celebrate in turnout generated by people who don’t really care about politics who were pressured into voting, and perhaps even pressured into voting a certain way. Every extra vote — no matter how apathetically or ignorantly cast — doesn’t make our democracy that much better. Voting is only the lowest and most basic form of civic engagement, and if you are among the approximately 61 percent of Americans that cannot name the three branches of our government, I can’t say that I am at all enthused by your participation in our electoral system.
And yet I appear to be in the minority on this question. Many will proudly place their “I Voted!” stickers on themselves and flaunt what they got. Some will take to posting pictures of themselves with said stickers at their polling station. They are . . . voters. I worry that they’re proud for the wrong reasons though: Themselves for (maybe) inconveniencing themselves, and perhaps for haranguing their friends and family to do the same. What I would hope they would be proud of is this awe-inspiring system and the awe-inspiring poll workers — all of whom in my town appear to be between 50 and 80 years old — who make it work. Despite the “authoritarian slide” toward illiberalism that you read about in The Atlantic and on Vox, here we are on November 3, 2020, likely — though not assuredly — about to elect someone other than Donald Trump president. And if we don’t, that’ll be the fault of Joe Biden and his campaign team — who I’m told have run one of the most brilliant races in American history but to my eyes appear not to have run one at all — and not any defect in our system, or your friends’ failure to vote.
Voting is something you should do if you want to, if it is at all possible, and you have enough knowledge to distinguish between the values espoused and policies promoted by the two major parties. However, if you believe that you or your family members’ or friends’ status as a good citizen, or maybe even as a good person, is dependent on if they vote, or maybe whom they vote for, I suspect that you may have embraced a superficial, performative kind of citizenship that fetishizes voting — because you yourself make it out to the polls every two years — and not the kind that worries about and takes care of your neighbor.
If you want to take a picture of yourself at the polls or wear your sticker, go ahead. That doesn’t make you a bad citizen or vain person. But don’t get so wrapped up in voter chic and worshipping turnout that you lose sight of what our goals should really be: Cultivating a citizenry that believes in treating each other well, understands and appreciates the American system of government, and takes their vote seriously enough to show up without an athlete or fast-casual dining chain’s urging.