May 15, 2007

The Right to Complain

It’s primary election day in Pennsylvania and, since I refuse to register as either a Democrat or Republican, I won’t be visiting the polling station today. Yes, as a registered voter I could still have my say on our Act 1 property tax ballot question, but two things made me hesitate: (1) if I vote for it today—and if it passes—I’ll find myself fighting against it as soon as I retire; and (2) considering our legislature’s history of having problems with ethics—from 2005’s illegal pay raise to the PHEAA scandal and cover-up—there’s no guarantee that any of these politicians would actually implement “property tax relief” for anyone once they find themselves with millions of dollars with which to play.

...Yes, it’s frustrating to have a primary situation such as this, but it’s even more frustrating to hear the trite locution that usually accompanies any discussion pertaining to wretched ballot choices in the general elections: “If you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain about the government.” On’s “teen advice” page, Mike Hardcastle provides a good example:

If you don’t vote you really have no right to complain about government decisions you don’t like (no matter how much they actually suck).

OK, if there is one thing that is really annoying to us actual voters it is the endless ramblings on the bad political policy of a current government spewing from the mouths of eligible voters who never bothered to cast a ballot. If you don’t vote it is like saying you don't care how your country is run, so if you don’t care where do you get the idea that you can complain when something happens that you don’t like? If you don't vote you really have no right complaining about anything the government does and if your [sic] like most young people you like complaining and have it down to a fine art. Want the right to complain when TPTB (the powers that be) make a truly heinous decision? Then you must exercise your right to vote.

...It’s unfortunate to see widespread use of such a philosophy—especially on a Website that is supposedly “advising” young people—because when we analyze it, we can easily see that there’s no logic to such a statement. If anything, the concept is actually contradictory; if one is aware that it’s election day but one refuses to vote, it’s a sign that one is not satisfied with the choices. If one did vote, one wouldn’t—or rather shouldn’t—complain because one would be helping to promote the politician and governmental system in question. For instance, if Voter X casts a vote for Politician X, what logic would there be in Voter X complaining about Politician X being in office?

...In a November 2004 Reason piece entitled “Not Voting and Proud,” Brian Doherty expresses a similar view:

Defending non-voting in bars across this great land, I often hear the ultimate “shut up”—that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about politics or society. The reality is the exact opposite: By voting, you are playing a game whose rules are that the majority vote winner gets to control the reins of government, in all its unspeakable power. If you complain about the results of the game you chose to play, you’re just being a sore loser—or winner.

...The argument might then become this: Those who are dissatisfied should attempt to join the system and change it from within. I would agree; such an argument is quite valid but has alas been met with difficulties. Last year a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Pennsylvania’s signature requirement for commonwealth-wide ballots: Republicans and Democrats need 2,000 signatures on their nominating petition; independents and third parties need 60,070 signatures. Aside from such a disparity, if such high numbers are required to simply be on the ballot, the issue is almost a moot point. After all, wouldn’t the majority have to be something other than Republican or Democrat and wouldn’t the issue quickly disappear?

...My purpose for writing this isn’t necessarily to change the two-party mentality which has permeated our country since the 1800s. To think that I could pull that off in a few blog posts would be unreasonable. Hell, I’m still surprised with how many votes H. Ross Perot received in 1992.

...My purpose for writing this is to defend a legitimate reason for voter abstention in general elections. Moreover, I’m defending abstainers’ “right” to complain when a politician does something that they find abhorrent. Suggesting that non-voters are simply apathetic or saying that critics of a particular candidate must first vote for that candidate in order to gain a right to complain (too bad that Justice Douglas didn’t get to find this one) is borne of a mentality that might win debates in bars or on playgrounds, but the argument doesn’t have any weight anywhere else.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review