I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.
Today's read: 7 minutes.
An interesting thing happened to me in 2020.
While the George Floyd protests spread across the U.S., I watched my social circle snap to attention and dedicate themselves to understanding police violence, racial injustice, and politics in the places where they lived. For months on end, my social media feeds were filled with posts of support, explainers, and opinions. My inbox was full of questions. My dinners out and time at the bar were dominated by explicitly political conversations — difficult, nuanced, informed discussion.
Everyone wanted to do something.
In New York, this movement was palpable. And if there was one important event to latch onto in hopes of effecting some change, it was the impending mayoral race. Local politics have long been the most effective way to improve policing and the judicial system, and New York was about to enter one of the wildest, most-watched mayoral races in recent memory, with a slew of progressives speaking the language of reform running up against a former presidential candidate (Andrew Yang) and a tough-on-crime former cop, who happened to also be Black (Eric Adams).
In New York, a city dominated by Democratic voters, the primary was — for all intents and purposes — the actual mayoral election. But when it came around, I noticed something peculiar and, frankly, shocking: Very few of my friends actually voted.
When I asked people if they had voted, the most common response I got was, "The election was today?" There were very few "I Voted" stickers in my Instagram feed, and there was very little political discussion about the race over dinners or at the bar. It was odd and confounding to me. But sadly, it is not at all unique.
It's not a secret that many Americans are cynical about the value of their votes.
Whether you track this by the percentage of registered voters or the percentage of the voting age population who actually vote, the U.S. tends to sit pretty far down the list of developed nations when it comes to voter participation rates. Some countries near the top, like Australia or Belgium, have compulsory voting (it's required by law). But most do not.
Broadly speaking, there are two buckets that voters fall into when they talk about why they don't vote: Barriers and apathy. Barriers are the structural issues that voters run into that prevent them from voting, while apathy is the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or belief that their vote matters or will change anything.
One of the most extensive examinations of these buckets came from FiveThirtyEight, which put together a survey of over 8,000 people while also tracking their voting history to understand how they participated in elections over time.
You probably know the barriers by now. Registering to vote can be cumbersome. It requires meeting deadlines, having a stable home address, sending in paperwork, (sometimes) providing identification, and paying close attention to when elections are coming. Actually voting can be difficult, too: It requires taking time off of work, or getting to a polling place before or after work. For many parents, it requires finding child care. For most voters, it requires actually getting to the polling place — sometimes via public transportation if you don't have a car — and doing it in a timely fashion.
The result is that in any given election somewhere between 35% and 60% of eligible voters never cast a ballot.
Thanks to these barriers, as FiveThirtyEight points out, the people who do vote tend to be higher income and better educated, and are more likely to be white and to identify with a specific political party. Nonvoters tend to be low-income and less educated, and are more likely to be young and lack party affiliation.
When asked about the barriers to voting, those surveyed in the FiveThirtyEight poll most often cited lines that lasted more than an hour, missing a voter registration deadline, not being able to get off work, and not being able to find or physically access their polling place (which is a major issue for Americans with disabilities).
These barriers are real, insidious, and clearly play a large role in why many people don't vote.
But the apathy bucket might be even larger. So it's the one I am going to address today.
In the FiveThirtyEight survey, nearly a quarter of the non-voters or irregular voters (i.e. they didn't vote often) mentioned the barriers above. But 31% said that they decided not to vote because they disliked the candidates, and another 26% said they decided not to vote because they thought nothing would change as a result of the election.
It's hard to blame people for this feeling. When you look at why people don't vote, the refrains are familiar:
No matter who wins, nothing will change. I didn't like any of the candidates. The system is too broken to be fixed by voting. All the candidates are the same. I wanted to vote but something came up. I don't believe in voting. Because of where I live, my vote doesn't matter. Nobody talks about issues that are important to me. I'm not sure if I can vote.
There is truth in all of this. Just 60 of the 435 congressional races in the United States were considered competitive in 2020. If you live in a state like New York or Louisiana, it can seem obvious that your vote in something like a presidential race doesn't matter. This, despite the fact that independents are now the largest political bloc in America (43%) when people are asked to self-identify (Republicans: 30% and Democrats: 24%, according to September Gallup polling).
All this is to say: I think these are legitimate gripes.
Now let me tell you why you should still vote.
For starters, most elections involve much more than just one race. If you're a liberal living in Wyoming, where Trump won 70% of the vote in 2020, it might feel pointless to go vote in a presidential race. But that election also included races in Congress, the State Legislature, and the State Supreme Court.
In 2020, for instance, there were also a huge number of ballot initiatives — single-issue “yes or no” votes — on everything from marijuana legalization to whether gig workers should be employees to raising the minimum wage to $15. These are not votes to put people in power who you may not think are going to do anything — they are literally an opportunity to, overnight, change the law in your state. Ballot initiatives, on their own, should be reason enough for you to show up at the polls in most elections. Often, those ballot initiatives are actually directly tied to the barriers we wrote about above — meaning your vote could potentially reduce the number of barriers to voting that other people face. They could also change elections, like the initiative in Alaska that implemented ranked-choice voting.
If you need any convincing your vote does count, though, you should know there were a huge number of close races for Congress. Georgia, New York and Iowa all had key races whose results were so close they took weeks after election day to finalize. And across the country, every year, there are local races that are decided by fewer than 100 votes. In fact, there have been a number of significant elections decided by a single vote. NPR has helpfully put together a list of those results here.
Assuming for a moment that the empirical evidence your vote is likely to matter is not convincing, or perhaps it really is true that your vote is unlikely to change the result of any election where you live, consider this: Politicians respond to trends.
In 2020, for instance, Democrats won the presidency, House and Senate. But what did they do for the months after the election? They spent time panicking about how many Hispanic voters they were losing. Why? Because even though they won all those elections, they saw a trend they didn't like — one that forced them to rethink their strategy.
It's important to know that in politics, it is not simply about wins and losses. It’s about electorates, strategizing, the future, and analyzing those dreadful trends. When you go to vote in an election, even if your vote doesn't produce the outcome you want, it can be part of a trend that forces your legislators to take notice. This is why Republicans worry about winning back Black voters and suburban moms and it's why Democrats worry about Hispanic voters and white men without college degrees.
The result of that worry can be actual, legitimate change. Over time, parties will change their policy platforms, where they campaign, or their stances on issues to win over certain voting blocs. Your vote, and the trend it helps produce, can inspire change in a party's platform even if it doesn't produce the electoral outcome you want.
These are all practical, tangible reasons to vote. You can incite change, inspire politicians to be more responsive, and there are almost certainly issues where your life could be impacted.
Now onto the less tangible.
Many non-voters express a belief that every politician is the same. I am not entirely sure how to shatter that cliche of a generalization, so allow me to be blunt: They are not. I have interviewed dozens of politicians. I have watched hundreds of debates. I have seen how bills are drafted and move through Congress or state houses or city councils.
Politicians are not all the same.
Some are smart, qualified, honest and motivated by sincere beliefs and a desire to serve. Some are dishonest, opportunistic, unqualified and have fewer problem-solving skills than your average American. Some have very clear ideological stances tied to capitalism or religious beliefs or the Founding Fathers. Some have equally deep ideological stances tied to equity or civil rights or progress.
As Tangle demonstrates daily, there are also two dominant ideologies in the United States: Conservative and Liberal. This duopoly is not perfect either, and I sometimes regret breaking issues down along those lines, but it exists in part because it is real. Because so many Americans hold incongruent and mixed views, the breakdown of left/right in the United States is not easy. But many elected leaders earnestly hold onto views attached to our two major political parties, and walk the line in order not to upset those parties. All politicians are not the same.
Now, let's assume for a moment that you are not buying any of this. Let's assume that at this point you're still wholly convinced your vote doesn't matter and that all politicians are the same.
Let me propose this to you: Those politicians you loathe, and that system you are deriding —they depend on your apathy. They need it to succeed. They need you to believe what you believe in order to stay in power and to maintain the status quo. Quite literally, one of the only ways you can fight them — in a tangible way — is to vote.
Like him or not, Andrew Yang actually explained why this is so important quite clearly to me during our interview last year. When discussing how politicians hold onto power, Yang said this about being an incumbent candidate in a primary race: "All I have to do is keep myself from getting primaried among the 10% to 15% most extreme people in my district and then I win! So I'll act like a little bit more of a zealot or jackass or whatever, or just duck certain questions. Our democracy is structurally broken, and most of us know it on some level and so we're checking out."
In other words, because the only people who are voting are those with super strong political beliefs — far to one side of the left-right spectrum — that's who politicians campaign to. The apathy from everyone else is a tool they use to stay in power and an incentive for them to move to the fringe. Yang's solution is to switch to open primaries and ranked-choice-voting. My solution is that you vote. In fact, I'd argue that Yang's solution is essentially impossible without mine, i.e. unless more people vote.
Finally, I'll give you the flag-loving mush: You should vote because you can.
Of all the years to reflect on this freedom we have, this one should drive it home. In Ukraine, we're watching a foreign leader who imprisons and kills his political opponents and dissidents, trying to remove the option for Ukranians to choose their own elected leaders. In Iran, protesters are dying in the streets to fight back against a regime that polices everything down to what they wear. Hong Kongers who have tried to tough out the incursion from Beijing are currently holding onto what is left of their representative democracy for dear life.
This right that we have did not come cheaply. Many people died fighting for it. Many people are currently risking their lives to come here and enjoy it. You can mock this as American exceptionalism, but it’s really the opposite — our democracy isn’t an exception to the rule. If we stop participating in it, it dies. We are currently in a raucous, dangerous place, where many voters don’t believe election outcomes and gerrymandering has become a legitimate crisis.
That’s all the more reason to participate.
Anyone reading this who lives in a democratic country where you still get to pick your leaders should feel immense gratitude. Choosing our elected representatives is a gift, like being born into a family with financial stability or being born with a healthy, functioning body. Do not waste it in the name of apathy — seize it, make it better.
On November eighth, four days from now, states across the country will be holding their 2022 midterm elections. Over 30 million people have already voted. If you’re not sure what is happening in your state, this website is a helpful resource.
As you probably know by now, I don't care who you vote for. But I do care — and hope deeply — that more and more people participate in our democratic process.
So, if you haven't yet, consider this my plea for you to join the fray.
Please: Go vote.
Share this post on Twitter
Share this post via email
Drop something in the tip jar