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Voting Does Not Provide Absolution | Op-Ed

When social movements and protests begin to gain traction and attention in popular media, some of the more moderate among us may denounce protests in favour of voting for change. With many folks turning to social media to express their support or opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests, the sufficiency of voting is a necessary conversation.

In my experience, young people organising and expressing discontent with political and social processes are often dismissed and encouraged to ‘just vote’. Although regularly voting in elections is an important responsibility assumed by citizens, it is only one aspect of a broader political process required for a state to maintain a healthy democracy.

In short: Voting is the bare minimum required for a state to be able to call themselves a democracy. Citizen participation should not stop with a trip to the ballot box once every few years. Politicians and government organisations need to be held accountable for their actions; or rather their inaction on important issues.

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Voting makes us feel better: The act of voting itself provides us with an excuse for a lack of civic engagement. Voting is a one-time act that allows folks to feel like they have done their part for society. Similar to reposting on social media, voting is an outward facing form of engagement that makes us feel like we are cleansed from our sense of responsibility and guilt. But politics isn’t always comfortable. Participating in ways that make us feel better is not sufficient.

Systemic issues cannot be addressed through systemic behaviours: By voting we are assuming that existing political structures are adequate for addressing the plights of citizens. But what if we don’t think the system itself is worth preserving?

  • When activists and citizens label issues such as racism as systemic, they are signalling that change is required on a large scale and that the system itself needs to be completely reimagined or eradicated.
  • Accepting that voting is enough to bring about social or political change means that you are also accepting the existing state system and its practices.
  • As such, our more radical and revolutionary ideas are transformed into palatable and moderate reforms that do not address underlying systemic inequalities.
  • Society and politics are ever evolving. We cannot just assume that a state’s government is set up in the most ideal way to serve its citizens

“Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements— from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome.”

Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle

The recent Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis have reached an international scale. These protests have resulted in significant accomplishments, ranging from the arrest of the officer responsible for the murder of Floyd and the toppling of Confederate statues across the United States.

The Canadian angle: Just under 66% of eligible Canadian voters cast a ballot in the 2019 federal election. Despite the controversy over Justin Trudeau’s past use of blackface, the Liberal Party of Canada preserved their power with a minority government.

  • Last week we heard RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki deny the presence of systemic racism in the RCMP in response to calls from protestors to hold officers accountable for their mistreatment and abuse of indigenous people.
  • This week NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was dismissed from the House of Commons for calling Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien racist for not supporting a motion to review the RCMP’s budget and use of force. Evidently, parliamentary convention can constrain controversial but necessary political debate.
  • These two incidents exemplify shortcomings in Canada’s political processes. Turning a blind eye to racism has permitted discrimination to thrive among government operations.  

The bottom line: Pushing the idea of voting is a reductive interpretation of political participation. Rather than limiting our engagement to a trip to the polls during an election, we should see voting as the first step in pushing for meaningful change. Engaging in difficult conversations, holding our politicians accountable, and protesting push the wheels of change further.