Recently, a respected friend sent me an outraged email. His subject line: “BOYCOTT VOTING!” He was at wit’s end over the vast sums of money that wealthy individuals and corporations are pouring into our elections: $400 million from the Koch Brothers; $100 million from Sheldon Adelson. If big money is going to buy the election, he said, then he will “withdraw his consent” by not voting.
I, too, am apoplectic at the money flooding our elections. It speaks of a level of corruption that undermines my hopes for solving the big problems of our time. That’s why I’m promoting the passage of a constitutional amendment to curtail unlimited election spending.
But is boycotting the vote the right response? Here’s how I see it: the big money doesn’t buy votes. It mostly buys television ads to influence our votes or discourage us from voting at all. So why would I fall into the trap of doing what the big money wants? As I wrote to my friend, after the election, no one will notice your boycott. They will only notice who won. Think of your vote as an act of protest and vote for candidates who vow to change the system. Here’s what you can do:
1. Vote the Whole Ballot
Vote the whole ballot. When we reach the bottom of the ballot, many of us find a bunch of names and initiatives we don’t know and skip them. Judicial positions are notorious for low vote tallies. So a few voters can determine who wins positions that can have a huge impact on our lives. I prepare by reading the voter pamphlet with care, especially watching for partisan buzzwords. Then I check with friends for additional information. I also sign up for emails from organizations that recommend candidates who match my values. So when I go to vote, I make my choices with confidence.
2. Contribute to Campaigns …
Another conundrum in this money-soaked election season is whether to give money to candidates. Does our measly $25, $50, or even $500 mean anything when the 1 percent can so far outspend us? My husband is pretty cynical about political contributions. But do we want to force candidates to get their funds only from the wealthy? One candidate told me, “I need to raise at least one-fifth of what my deep-pocketed opponent raises. Otherwise, I’m just not a player.” I like this candidate. I think she has smarts and integrity. She wants to overturn Citizens United and other laws that make campaigns so expensive. So I (yes, together with my husband) made a contribution to her campaign, as well as to several other candidates we believe in.
3. … But Not Just Money
Fortunately, money is not the only way to influence an election. Giving time can be even more valuable. One respectful conversation with a potential voter can reverse the effects of thousands of dollars of ads. Going door to door, phoning, helping people get registered and to the polls can all make a difference. Your favored candidates may be outspent, but if they out-organize, they may be able to prevail. Organizing, of course, means getting people like you and me to volunteer.
It’s easy to be discouraged about a political system that seems so out of reach. I take heart from history. In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, income inequality was similar to today’s. There was widespread political corruption. Then people rose up and ushered in the Progressive Era. They voted in candidates who instituted the estate tax and progressive income taxes, changed election laws, and made many other reforms.
By the 1950s through the 1970s we had an expanding middle class and a fairer election system. We can make those changes again. But only if we get engaged and informed, and vote.