by Jordan Poyner

Voting doesn’t matter because the options are arbitrary, unrepresentative of many voters’ values, and, in the end, unlikely to change the status quo. This is the contention of a diverse demographic of individuals today–and they’re not wrong. The act of voting for one of two entrenched parties that seem to be both eerily similar and distinct in the extreme, while still failing to espouse the values that many Americans endorse, is one of questionable import. What is lost and gained in contemporary elections? What lasting achievements can we account for by votes we’ve cast? The answers seem to consistently trend negatively. The result of this situation is often illustrated by statistical representations of low participation and turnout during elections. Voting doesn’t change anything, so why do it?

The best answer to this dire query is an unsatisfying one: voting doesn’t matter in the way we want it to because what we want from it is unrealistic. In a democratic state, where citizens are tasked with self-government, voting is too infrequent an act to constitute the citizens’ sole contribution to government. And in a representative democracy where a plurality of the citizens feel that their representatives are out of touch with the values of the represented, the act of electing representatives becomes increasingly vexed and diluted of significance. The simple act of voting can’t bear the weight of our desires for political change, yet this is what we task it with each election season.

The beauty of democracy, as a political and cultural mode, is that it allows for individual choice to be more emphatically present in the business of living. The people–and not an elevated individual or impenetrable cadre of elites–are tasked with providing for the maintenance of the government. If we fail to see our current relationship with the government as such, then, whatever the cause of the aberration, there are two options: attempted rehabilitation of that relationship, or a parting of ways. The act of voting might conceivably be a component of either approach, but it alone cannot achieve rapprochement between the government and the people. Self-government requires more.

However important it may or may not be, voting is just one aspect of political life in democracy. The social and political engagement of the individual is manifested by a more complex, consistent, and ambiguous activity. Self-government–as a public and private exercise–requires thoughtfulness and effort, and not just in our political activities. Whether by being active within one’s religious community, participating in the PTA of your child’s school, or volunteering our time to help others, our moral engagement with others in community is a more concrete statement of our values. Citizenship, as political theorist Patrick Deneen says, is “a discipline of friendship.” The political is a particular formulation of relationship–if it serves to disintegrate the more fundamental relationship then it is no longer a healthy distinction. The narrow understanding of ourselves and others that electioneering and party politics allow is a distortion of what is true.

Political engagement is not contained within the process of elections; true self-government is an everyday thing. The pursuit of political reforms goes beyond ballot initiatives. Meaningful and lasting change requires that our approach to affecting laws or the function of the government not be a mere game of strategy. It requires persistence, patience, and conversations with those we disagree with. And it requires that we be citizens more than twice a year at the ballot box. Voting will never matter in the way that we want it to, but why are we asking so much of it in the first place?

Jordan Poyner is a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.