This Is Not the Year for a Protest Vote | Sojourners

This Is Not the Year for a Protest Vote

Or apathy.
Illustration by Michael George Haddad

PEOPLE OFFER MANY reasons for not voting, from “one vote doesn’t matter” and “there’s no real difference between the parties” to the conviction that an election “won’t bring about real justice (or the reign of God).”

The latter, at least, is certainly true. Voting—even electing the best-available candidates for the most important positions in government—definitely won’t bring about the peaceable kingdom.

But who is ultimately elected—especially at the presidential level—can make a world of difference in the lives of those in the most vulnerable conditions. For instance, in the past three-plus years, more than 200 judges have been appointed to the bench, many of them to lifetime terms. Of that number, zero have been Black. And judicial appointment is only one of many powers in executive hands, which affect everything from education, housing, and immigration policies to whether our society makes the hard choices of confronting racialized policing and combating climate change.

People of faith can’t forgo civic responsibility—which includes the ballot box—with claims of apathy or that they’re not impacted by “politics,” because what happens in the public sphere, of which partisan politics is only one part, has consequences for everyone. And while some have the privilege (or illusion) of being protected from structures of injustice and destructive public policies, many more people are afflicted by them. But more important, disciples of Jesus have the mandate to act in ways that consciously treat those in the most marginalized situations as bearers of God’s divine image. In other words, Christians are called to live, and vote, mindful of the left out and left behind.

Others have pointed out that the right to vote is “sacred” because of all the blood, sweat, and tears that have been sacrificed to secure access to the ballot box for disenfranchised people, and that’s undeniably true. But voting is not about honoring the past—it’s about working for a better future. And right now, that hard-earned right is under serious threat from partisan efforts to suppress ballot access for “certain” people.

The strategies of voter suppression include: 1) decrease access, 2) delegitimize results, and 3) demobilize or dissuade voters. An egregious—but unfortunately all too common—example of the latter was on display in late August, according to The Washington Post. Robocalls linked to right-wing operatives sought to discourage voters in Democratic-leaning cities by falsely claiming that personal information from mail-in ballots would be used by police and credit card companies to go after people with outstanding warrants or debts. “Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man,” the recording said. “Stay safe and beware of vote-by-mail.”

The Michigan secretary of state decried the “unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote,” saying that the call, targeted at cities including Detroit, which is 78.6 percent Black, “preys on voters’ fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system ... and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting.” Political scientist Michael McDonald said such dirty tricks have been “in the playbook for a long time. We’ve seen misinformation and disinformation given to particularly minority communities and African American communities to try to suppress their vote.”

In a close election it’s obvious that, in some places, “every vote matters,” and not just spiritually; the outcome in Michigan in the 2016 presidential race came down to a margin of only two votes per precinct. That’s one of the reasons why this is not the year for a protest vote—each of the 2016 third-party candidates in Michigan won more votes than Trump’s margin over Clinton.

But votes matter even in places where a close tally is not expected. This election is in many ways a national referendum on racism, and a message—if not a mandate—will be delivered in the results. And it’s not incidental that an election with a large margin is more difficult to delegitimize, or steal.

Voting may not be the alpha and omega of social change, but elections can open up space for real change to occur. On Nov. 3, people will engage in a binary choice with much at stake. The next day, regardless of the results, the work for a more just world will continue.

This appears in the November 2020 issue of Sojourners