To engage non-voters, we must consider their complexity

Opinion by Cindy Yu
Oct. 22, 2020, 8:10 p.m.

It was while flipping through stories on Instagram imploring me to vote that I received a frantic call from my mother in Texas. She demanded to know if I was still planning on voting. When I told her I had all intentions to, she urged me to refrain. Not just from voting — from protesting, from donating, from exercising the very freedoms she once wanted so badly that she chose to leave behind the only family and land she knew at age twenty on a small rickety boat despite not knowing how to swim.

Even though I knew I could appease her by pretending I would abstain from participating, I couldn’t bring myself to. If I gave into her doubts, I risked undoing all the progress I had made in recent months convincing her to vote. When she suggested the possibility of being punished for aligning with either side by voting, I lost control and retorted, “Don’t be ridiculous — they aren’t going to do anything to you for voting!” But as soon as the words left my lips, I couldn’t ignore the aftertaste of privilege they left in my mouth.

The ability to believe in the illusion that you have unalienable rights and freedoms is a luxury, one that not everyone in America gets to have. For my mother, who grew up in a war-torn Vietnam witnessing families punished for acts most of us don’t think twice about here in America, such as eating chicken, the reality of oppression and disenfranchisement is undeniable. When I try to reassure her that they — our government — can’t do anything to her if she votes, she scoffs and says, “Dear, they can do anything they want.”

When we consider what has transpired over this past year alone, her skepticism in the integrity of our democracy is not unfounded. While we are supposed to have rights to assemble and protest, law enforcement bodies across the nation have demonstrated on countless occasions that they can — and will — deny us of these liberties. While each presidential successor is supposed to be determined by an election, President Trump has suggested that he may refuse to concede the outcome in November. While most of us are supposed to have the right to vote, the president’s call on his supporters to monitor polls and attempt to limit the use of ballot dropoff boxes during a pandemic suggests otherwise.

Although my mother’s fears of facing punishment for engaging politically are likely unique to her experience as an immigrant, the lack of confidence and distrust she has in the state of American politics and government is not. Earlier this year, the Knight Foundation released a study on 100 million non-voting Americans that revealed a host of reasons eligible voters had for refraining from casting their ballots. Many disliked the available candidates. Others believed their vote didn’t matter. Some distrusted the system as a whole. Others felt under-informed on political issues. With two out of the last five elections going to the candidate who lost the popular vote, it is no wonder some people doubt the weight of their votes. In a country that has for centuries valued the lives and privileges of select groups over others, it is only natural that some people have lost faith in the system that brands itself as a democracy that offers equality for all. In a time of rampant misinformation and politicians who push glaring lies, becoming and remaining well-informed on political matters is a task that demands more time and energy, which not everyone can afford. 

The rhetoric we commonly see in campaigns urging citizens to get to the polls paints a disingenuous portrait of non-voters. Framing voting as a civic duty implies that those who do not partake are irresponsible. Shaming those who don’t vote suggests that abstention is a moral failure. In reality, many non-voters have quite reasonable concerns. It may be difficult to acknowledge, though, because it’s much more satisfying to condemn a group of people than it is to recognize how utterly flawed the system is.

Americans have a complex relationship with voting, and the way we talk about and try to engage non-voters should reflect this complexity. As tempting as it might be to urge or shame the non-voters in our lives with generic calls to action, it’s worth considering an approach that focuses on first sincerely understanding their positions.

Otherwise, we risk alienating groups of people we may actually share a lot in common with, people who might become allies if they learned their concerns might be addressed in some campaigns, such as ones advocating against gerrymandering or for electoral college reform. During my conversation with my mother, I was so fixated on the possibility of her inaction becoming a statistic that I forgot I was speaking to someone who not once but twice put her life on the line because she wanted democracy. Too consumed by my own concerns, I drove her away with my frustration and failed to recognize that we stood on common ground. 

Based on my interactions with the more politically engaged individuals in my life, I worry that the kind of interaction I had with my mother occurs too often, whether out of impulse or intention. A poll conducted earlier this month by Axios suggested that six out of ten college students are prepared to shame voting-eligible peers if they do not vote. However, as the election nears, let us not forget that the status quo only stands to gain from the fissures we create among ourselves. When we blame each other for outcomes, we distract from the root of the problem: Our systems are failing to inspire confidence in the citizens that they were supposed to serve in the first place.

Contact Cindy Yu at yucindy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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Cindy Yu '22 is a desk editor for The Grind for volume 259. She is majoring in Earth Systems.

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