The right not to vote considered

Only about 50 percent of the “eligible” (not to be confused with “registered”) voters in Minnesota bothered to go to the polls on Tuesday, and Wednesday featured the usual amount of “tsk tsk’ing” from people who did.

Is it bad that half the people didn’t bother to vote, especially when Minnesota made it easier this year to cast a ballot? You have the right to vote, of course. And you have the right not to vote. But, like several other rights, not voting is a right that can get you condemned for exercising.

Take Jon Stewart, for example.

That comment earned Stewart a boatload of criticism, which caused him to apologize on his show last night.

Stewart’s situation is a little different. He’s an influential person.

But what about the people who influence nobody and quietly go about their business of being disengaged by choice?

In a perfect world, 100 percent voting seems like a good idea. But this isn’t a perfect world and to some extent, it’s not a very knowledgeable one.

Consider the survey I wrote about on Constitution Day that showed nearly one-third of those surveyed can’t name a single branch of government. Not one.

I’m guessing that if you can’t name a single branch of government, you’re probably not informed enough to even know how to vote, let alone have the capacity to cast an informed vote.

So let’s assume that the 50 percent of Minnesotans not voting were either among the third who don’t know how government works, or were in the two-thirds who couldn’t name all three branches of government.

Discussion point: What does Minnesota lose by not having these people influence the future of the state?

  • Kassie

    Just because someone doesn’t understand “branches of government” doesn’t mean they can’t make an informed choice in voting. They know what the President/Governor does, they know what the legislature does and they know what courts do. They know the three branches, they just don’t know the technical term or how the actual separation works. And to go further to suggest they can’t figure out the mechanics of showing up at a designated spot and filling in bubbles is pure snobbery. Many people who are poorly educated do very well in figuring out complex government institutions (welfare, school, correctional, etc) much better than most very well educated people do. They jump through so many more hoops on a regular basis than most of us do, and voting is just another one of those hoops.

  • Robert Moffitt

    I have often wondered if a poorly-informed voter is worse than those who choose not to vote. Who knows?
    I do know that the people who showed up at the polling place I worked — I met every one of them — seemed like they were taking the task pretty seriously. I especially enjoyed meeting the young first time voters, and the “new Americans” voting in their first election. You can see the pride they felt. I know they will be back.

  • Jason Mock

    Considering the percentage of Americans that know more about the Kardashians than any of their own Elected officials, I’m OK with sub 100% voter turnout. If you’ve taken the time, and made the effort to be at all knowledgeable about the issues / candidates, I wholeheartedly encourage you to vote. If Election day comes, and you only head to the polls out of some sense of obligation, stay home, so you don’t counter the intentional votes of your neighbors that paid attention.

    • Gary F


      But the low information voter is a target audience for campaigns.

  • Robert Moffitt

    I won’t ask Bob if he voted — it’s none of my damned business — but I did note that Jason DeRusha posted a photo of himself and his sons at the polls, sporting the red “I voted” sticker. Personally, I like to see newsies participate in the process. I could care less who Jason voted for, but glad his public about it.

    • Tweets from a 1940s Newsroom Typewriter:

      • 1940’s Newroom Typrewriter fail.

        Polio vaccines weren’t administered in the 1940’s.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Minnesota loses nothing when disengaged, uninformed persons don’t vote. A voter should be engaged and knowledgeable so she can understand the consequences of her vote. We don’t allow young children to vote because they are not mature enough to be engaged, are not knowledgeable, do not understand the consequences, and are more interested in their toys than politics. Minnesota doesn’t seem to lose anything by not having children vote.

    On the other hand, I think that the disengaged non-voter does lose. They just may not know it.

  • TheMagicRat

    By that logic, I shouldn’t drive a car because I don’t know all the names/functions of the major parts under the hood.

    • Nobody said they shouldn’t vote so I’m not sure what logic you’re referring to. The question was what is lost by them not voting.

      But, to your point, a proper comparison might well be the question of do we miss much if a person who doesn’t know what a red light is doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car.

      Also housekeeping reminder for everyone: Real names only are allowed on NewsCut.

      • Vladislov Kyzinski

        Well by golly, Bobby, I VOTED! And I use my REAL LAST name!

    • Jeff

      No. You don’t need to know anything about how a car works to use (i.e. drive) a car, just like you don’t need to know anything about how government works to use government. But you do need to know how to car works (i.e. what the parts do) to make changes to how it works, just like you know how government works (i.e. what the people who work in it do) to make changes to it by voting.

  • jon

    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

    ― Isaac Asimov

    • John

      That claim goes back well before Asimov. I’m pretty sure the Romans had a similar issue.

      • Vladislov Kyzinski

        It’s probably in the Cabala.

  • KTN

    I always find this type of question funny. What exactly defines someone who is politically informed. That they recite the Constitution, that they know the stance of every politician on the ballot, what.
    Don’t know the size of DC as enumerated in the Constitution, well then in my book you are uninformed and should not vote. Sort of limiting, but it is right their, easy to find.
    When pressed, many candidates are uncomfortably vague when attempting to outline their own policy positions, and yet, we continue to elect them – absent a seemingly working knowledge of the laws of the land. Some have nice hair, some like to castrate pigs, but most have a tenuous grasp of the Bill of Rights, and yet they continue to make specious claims about how a bill becomes a law.

    • // What exactly defines someone who is politically informed.

      Somebody who votes?

      • KTN

        I would say that someone who votes is a voter, and not always politically informed – they are not synonymous.

      • Kassie

        But Jon Steward is clearly politically informed and did not vote.

        Also, I know some Anarchists who are very politically informed and do not vote. They don’t buy into the process.

        • You should probably watch that second video.

          • Kassie

            Doh, I just read the name of the video. Probably should of watched it. It is hard to watch videos at work.

            But still, the Anarchists, and others, sometimes choose not to vote. I once didn’t vote because I was out of the country. Jesse Ventura won that election.

  • MikeB

    What does it say about us that we have so many people that do not care about voting, or that so many people are apathetic in how they are governed? I can understand 20% not caring to vote but when we reach the 50% level that is concerning.

    • John

      Traditionally, MN has had a better than average turnout for voting, compared to the nation. I bet our 50% was higher than most states.

    • I still think the idea that you have to go to a geographic location to vote is anachronistic. I think you should be able to register a bank account number and, if you choose, vote at the nearest ATM, with the vote applying to your home district.

      • John

        right, because the ATM owners have no vested interest in gaming the system so their candidate wins.

        • The political equivalent of “chemtrails”

          • John

            perhaps, but given how difficult it has been to get electronic voting put in place by companies with far less incentive to cheat, I don’t see it happening. (I mean, come on, there are politicians trying to discredit climate change based on the argument that scientists make their living off of studying climate change – do you really think this wouldn’t be a much bigger fight than that?)

            Bigger issue – what you proposed requires people to have a bank account, and also places the business of voting in the hands of private business. Both of those should have been red flags for me before I jumped to paranoid conspiracy ramblings.

      • MikeB

        Completely agree. The reason we vote on a Tuesday was due to factors that are outdated now. make it a holiday, but keep increasing voting may mail and other options.

        • Dave

          Make the first November Tuesday the deadline instead of election day. Too many things about voting were devised back in old New England. Winter is a reality in many parts of the country on election day. It should not impact anyone’s ability to vote. There should not be stories of people staying home because it was too cold/snowy/ugly.

          • BJ

            Many states have early voting, now, it usually starts about 10 days before the first Tuesday after the first Monday. Louisanna has most elections on Saturdays if they are not federal elections. Voter turn out doesn’t change much, 1-2% at first, if any.

          • Dave

            But a lot of states have limited early voting recently, along with axing registration at the poll.

        • Kassie

          I think making it a holiday would reduce the number of voters. Holidays mean vacations. Where I work next Tuesday is a holiday so very few of us will be here on Monday and many are planning trips.

          • John

            I’d definitely absentee ballot and then take a long weekend somewhere without a TV.

      • boB from WA

        Any numbers on those states that have “vote by mail”? We do that out here on the left coast and (along with a voter guide mailed to each household) make it easier to be informed. The only drawback is that a voter either has to mail or drop off the ballot.

        • Robert Moffitt

          In WA and OR, 2 states with vote by mail, participation was down this year, compared to 2010. It was down sharply in WA. which is a mail-only voting state. From 54% in 2010 to 39% this year. Voter participation in CO, a state that just began vote by mail is up, but only by about 1%.

          • I think this is the fascinating part about MN’s declining voter participation in the mid-terms, given that this year you didn’t need an excuse for an absentee ballot and the state adopted early voting.

          • Robert Moffitt

            Commentators have been noting for some time that 2014 was lining up to be a “boring” election, without a lot of hot-button social issues being discussed, and most candidates sticking to the tried-and-true stump speeches, rather than offer anything new, sweeping or controversial.

          • jack

            Bob, could it be that part of the low turn-out for mid-terms would be due to the past behaviors of the House and the Senate? A “What’s the point of casting a vote for a system that doesn’t work?” attitude?

      • Vladislov Kyzinski

        Not a good idea, Bobby.

  • John

    I haven’t talked with anyone about it for this election, but in previous elections I talked with people who chose not to vote, and there were typically two reasons that I heard:

    1) My vote doesn’t matter

    2) They’re all bums, and I don’t want to vote for any of them, so why bother?

    Someone here addressed (2) for me nicely, by suggesting that turning in a blank ballot is a better, more effective protest than not showing up. I like that idea a lot.

    As far as (1) . . . hopelessness and malaise are as old as time.

    More to the question at hand – what does MN lose by people not voting? I don’t think we lose much of anything. If you can’t find a reason to go vote, then don’t bother.

    • Dave

      A blank ballot is just ignored by the machine. You are not making any kind of statement by doing that. No one will know the reason why it is blank. Furthermore, you are an odd duck if you bother to go to the polling station, stand in line, and insert a blank ballot — all to make a point that no one will get.

      • boB from WA

        Could always fill in the “other” with out a name. I do that occasionally, especially in uncontested races.

      • John

        Wouldn’t the blank ballot need to be counted, at least to ensure the manual count (i.e. the numbered slip you get when you check in) matches the number of ballots submitted?

      • Jeff

        It’s akin to the person who declares that they will never go back to a store because of _______________ (fill in the blank) but they never tell the store this. The store won’t change because they don’t know. Politicians won’t change because you didn’t vote for them if they don’t know why you didn’t vote for them. Voting a blank ballot does nothing but waste time, paper and electricity.

        • The exception is a constitutional amendment.

        • Kassie

          As long as politicians keep winning, they have no reason to change, even if you tell them you don’t like what they are doing. Only when they lose do they change.

          I didn’t vote for one person in a certain race because I think she is an incompetent fool, based on personal interactions I had with her in another part of her life. The person running against her had decent positions. I’m not going to tell her I didn’t vote for her because she is incompetent. That just comes off as mean, and she isn’t going to change and suddenly become competent.

    • JD

      A ballot with only third-party candidate selections would be counted, however. Depending on how you look at it, such a gesture might be recognized as a small protest against having only two “bums” to choose from at least.

      • jon

        Voting for 3rd parties who don’t stand a chance at winning is a wonderful way to change the tone of a campaign…
        Most of these parties know they won’t win, most are running on the hope of getting the ~5% of the vote required to get public campaign funding…
        The more parties we have running the more likely we are to like one of the bums who is on the ballot…

        I much prefer this option to not voting, feeding in ballots with only write in candidates is also a reasonable solution to showing your discontent with the options.

        Of course the best option is to get involved in the process much earlier than the general election, we do have primaries where we decide which bum we are going to put on the ballot….

    • My pal at work forwards this commentary and, although she didn’t say so, the suggestion would be that voting gives the appearance of legitimizing a gamed system.

      It’s George Carlin, so of course it’s NSFW.

      Personally, I think Carlin is wrong, but I live a pretty comfortable existence.

  • Jim G

    As I frequently told my students, if folks don’t vote they are allowing others to choose for them. Those people are the ones who DO vote in every election from school board elections and referendums to the big Presidential elections. These perpetual voters skew, older, whiter, more male, more affluent, and more conservative than the general electorate which shows up to vote in Presidential races. This has been proven again by the latest mid-term election. If you don’t vote… you get the representatives that these folks choose for you. If you care about shaping your future… you will vote. However, if people don’t care about their own future, they are choosing this default setting.

  • Folks, i’m deleting many of the comments because they’re attempting to hijack the thread and have a post mortem on the election choices and results. That’s not what this thread is about. So if your comment has gone missing, that’s why.

    And, as always, real names. Real email addresses. Or the post is deleted.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I’m A-OKAY with Jon Stewart not voting.

  • If you consider only those REGISTERED to vote, then turnout was 63%. It’s a fairly significant number of people who didn’t vote who weren’t even registered to vote, so i presume this isn’t a one-off “I didn’t like the choices I had” situation for that percentage.

  • Jen

    “I’m guessing that if you can’t name a single branch of government, you’re probably not informed enough to even know how to vote, let alone have the capacity to cast an informed vote.”

    This is a false assumption, and also sounds pretty elitist. Sure, in a perfect world all of our citizens would have a solid understanding of the branches of government, among other civic matters. But one can be shaky on the structure of government and still have well-formed opinions on the issues, and which candidate best represents their views. And voting for the first time can be confusing and / or intimidating. But I would also submit that many people who do cast votes are terribly ill-informed about the issues. Read the pre-election Sunday Star Tribune piece where the reporter traveled Highway 55 across the metro, from exurb to exurb, talking to Minnesotans about their views and voting plans. Some were shockingly ill-informed, self-admittedly, and still planned to vote. One young woman said she would vote for whomever her dad told her to. (!!!)

    As for what Minnesota loses by not having “these people” influence the future of the state?

    I think that’s the wrong question. When those who hold power want to oppress those without, it’s a lot easier to do so when those without voluntarily give up one of the few bits of power they have. It drives me crazy when people don’t vote at all because they don’t like the choices, or think the system is rigged, or feel their vote doesn’t count. There are probably tens or hundreds of thousands of people who share your views on some issue who aren’t voting either. Imagine the impact you would have if you all voted. You might like the results.

    • I don’t think an American citizen being able to name ONE — just ONE — branch of their government would come anywhere near qualifying as a PERFECT world.

      As for “elitist,” yes, I’m guilty. I think an education is a good thing and a pretty good standard for measuring the efficacy of a strong civilization.

      What you miss, oddly, in the question is an interpretation that says certain people SHOULDN”t vote. Nowhere in this post do I say that. What I ask is the question you didn’t answer: so what if they don’t?

      there’s nobody oppressing those people who didn’t vote. They’re responsible for not voting; it’s on them. It’s not on anybody else. So if they chose not to vote, just as they chose not to understand simple civics, that’s their choice and the consequences that go with that choice.

      Now, what does a PERFECT world look like. To me it looks like a world where people understand the structure of government and maybe in the process of learning it, they were inspired to understand how it relates to their lives. And maybe because of that, they bother to register to vote.

      I’ll tell you what it DOESN’T look like: It doesn’t look like a number to me. It doesn’t look like 50% or 60% or 70% or 80% , 90% or 100%.

      In other words, it looks to me a lot like a naturalization ceremony, in which we say that among other things — a knowledge of the structure of our government is an indication of your ability to function as a citizen of it.

      • These people.

      • Jen

        I didn’t say anyone shouldn’t vote. (Is that what you meant by what I missed in the question? Not sure.) I was trying to differentiate between being informed and voting. Two different things; one doesn’t lead to the other and vice versa.

        So what I didn’t say explicitly in the last paragraph was that populations that typically have very low turnout tend to be on the majority society’s margins. They may feel unrepresented by any candidate and may choose not to vote, feeling that their votes don’t matter. All I meant was that they are the ones who have something to lose, not necessarily Minnesota, as your original question asked. What do they have to lose? Their voting rights. (See gutting of Voting Rights Act and related voting restrictions imposed in TX, WI, NC, and many other places.)

        Yes, agree that a perfect world would have all citizens understand government structure, process, history, etc.

        • // I was trying to differentiate between being informed and voting.

          Right. But what I said was if you can’t name a single branch of government, you’re probably somewhere in that 50% that didn’t vote. And I’m perfectly fine with that because I think if you can’t name a single element of the branch of government, you’re probably not bringing much to the table anyway.

          But, yes, I agree with you completely. If someone chooses not to vote, it may impact them (or it may not) more than it impacts the collective 50 percent who did (i.e. “the state”).

          I see that, perhaps, as a loss for them. I don’t see it as a loss to the process or the results of that process.

          For those who DO have a knowledge of the process, are registered and still choose not to vote, I don’t have a problem with that at all. That’s entirely their choice whether they wish to exercise a particular right or not.

          Personally, I don’t think the 50% figure is the shocking takeaway of this election. I see the vote in the MN Supreme Court races as something that’s practically screaming, “take this away from the voters before they do something really stupid.”

          • Jen

            Huge yes on that last point. Judicial positions should not be in the hands of the voters. The fact that “John Hancock” (who?) got more than half a million votes against Wilhelmina Wright shows that most voters haven’t a clue about the judicial races. Retention elections are the way to go. That would be the one constitutional amendment I’d like to see on the ballot next time.

  • I suggested on Twitter something to this effect and was roundly criticized. I think that if people choose not to vote, that’s a choice! That’s freedom! I don’t think 100% participation is necessarily better than the 50% who care participating.

    There’s this idea that voting is your civic duty. To me, the duty is to get informed. If you fail at that duty or choose not to vote after being informed, then you probably shouldn’t vote.