(The picture shows a screencap of Facebook's "Voting" widget, displayed at the top of my feed for all of November 2nd, and now into November 3rd. Taken at approximately 1 AM New York time on November 3rd, it shows that 12,046,588 Facebook users used the widget to indicate that they voted as of that point in time.)
My wife, son, and I walked the four blocks to our local polling station today. Two years ago, he went as a tiny infant in the Ergo, and slept through our voting, and then slept through us watching the results. Today, he walked himself, gripping onto the two plastic dinosaurs the dentist gave him this morning for a no-cavities-and-no-biting checkup. Holding his hand to cross the street, I said, "We're going to vote. When we go to vote, we learn about who we think will do the best job of working to help our community, and then we pick them. And the people who win then make decisions about how to run our country. It's very important that we do it."
Every single word I said was wrong.
This is the problem with studying a thing: you inevitably learn too much about it. You figure out how a thing works, and then you realize it's nothing like you expected, nothing like you thought; things are much more prosaic and random, and your ability to shift reality is less and less than you thought.
Basic rational choice theory teaches you that voting is an irrational act: a single vote so rarely makes a difference that no one of us has any political effect. Game theory teaches us how much rules matter, which means, at election time, that the majority of us barely count at all. The study of polling and political opinion teaches us that those who hold strong partisan affiliations rarely have an effect on the outcome of an election.
More than anything, I find myself skeptical about how much voting matters
as a measure of the rightness of a polity. Post-1989, I tell my students too frequently, democracy is the only game in town, the only overarching ideology you can make a claim to when you think something is wrong with your political system. It's not that I'm against
democracy; it's merely that I don't think choosing political leaders via reasonably open elections is the be-all and end-all of political justice. Elections are a shitty
way to express preferences, and an even shittier way to engage in political dialogue, because they're like sledgehammers: they don't allow for any sort of disaggregation of arguments, and for not an ounce of nuance. Even the best elections are an incredibly crude way to make policy decisions.
I know this. I have known this.
And I haven't missed an election in the eleven years I've been old enough to vote.
The politics that interests me as a scholar is the politics that takes place in actual encounters between individuals, wherein we interact and navigate the lines of power between us. Social movements interest me in their decisions and strategies; policies interest me in the complex ways they are written into law, and then written again onto the bodies of people who follow them (or break them); informal political relations interest me because power is everywhere, and must always be negotiated.
But I am more than a political scientist: I am also a person who lives in the political world. I'm a person whose marriage is not legally recognized in my place of residence. My taxes pay for social services, which I am also a beneficiary of. My life is regulated by the regimes I am subject to. I'm also a person with strong, strong
empirical political preferences, preferences that have never been well-represented by my elected officials, because I'm just too far to the fringe. Political science has taught me to moderate my desires, to reign myself in, to make strategic choices and expect to be recognized only barely.
The fact that voting is irrational doesn't mean I don't do it. So many of my political actions are irrational; they derive not from economic self-interest, but from theoretical principles or from instinctive preference or from prejudices I can't quite justify. (Amazingly, I've been comfortable voting for Joseph Lieberman, but not for Hillary Clinton; my reasons for this are confusing even to me.) It no longer concerns me to realize that "my vote doesn't matter," because what matters is that I vote, is that I make the gesture and then sit back and watch what all the gestures mean on the aggregate.
I'm laying on my living room floor right now, with a concession speech on mute, flipping back and forth between my local election results, the national election results, and Facebook, watching that counter tick up, up, up, counting down everyone who voted today. (Over twelve million people, as of me typing this.) Just because I know the limits of democracy, doesn't mean I don't play along (and pick favorite teams). Just because I know how useless voting is doesn't mean I don't do it.
And just because it's a limited discourse, which does the work it means to do so poorly, doesn't mean it doesn't have value. People who are fighting for free, fair, and open elections aren't wrong to be doing so. They're asking for something they think can help. We need every bit of help we can get to make real political change in the world. Electoral democracy's a fine place to start.