by Jacqueline Knirnschild

“Political engagement is not contained within the process of elections; true self-government is an everyday thing,” New Herald editor Jordan Poyner wrote last week in his reflection on voting. “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,” claims Poyner. Many Americans, however, seem to champion voting as being considerably more important than the daily moral engagement which Poyner advocates.

Since the early 1980s, “I Voted!” stickers have served as a symbol of community ritual and an attempt to get more people to the polls. In recent years, “I Voted!” selfies have proliferated on social media, allowing people the chance to not only express self-pride, but also to receive “likes” and comments from online friends. Such comments—for example, “democracy suits you…” and “thank you for loving our country”—congratulate another’s demonstration of civic engagement through voting, and thus morphing the voting stickers and selfies into symbols of achievement that deserve approval. And while only about 40-60% of eligible voters participate in most U.S. elections, there is a vociferous subgroup that disapproves of those who do not vote. “If you’re not registered to vote, delete me from Snapchat,” I saw an acquaintance post a month or so ago. Another post included a photo of the user’s dog, with a caption that encouraged followers not to disappoint the dog by not voting. Many of my friends have asked me—in an almost accusatory tone—if I am registered to vote or not. The narrative is clear: a good citizen votes, meriting praise and inclusion, whereas a bad citizen does not vote, justifying shame and exclusion. This popular voting narrative, however, is binary in nature and ultimately creates a surface-level approach to civic engagement. Civic duty doesn’t end at the voting booth.

My father has only voted once in his life. His father also never voted. My dad was in the navy for eight years after college, but never really felt inclined to vote.  My brother has also never voted but is currently serving in the navy. “The reason I don’t vote is because elections never really seem to impact my life,” my dad told me. My mother is also not very politically active and only votes in the presidential elections. I grew up in a home isolated from current affairs—we didn’t have cable TV, we never watched or discussed the news, and we debated more about what to eat for dinner than who should be the next president. “The fact that I have no idea who the governor of Ohio is doesn’t make me a bad person,” my dad said with a laugh when I asked him if he ever feels guilty about his lack of political engagement.

I’m sure that many people would rush to condemn my father, citing his privilege as a white, upper-class male to explain why his life has always been untouched by election results. While this criticism isn’t wrong—the well-off are often less impacted by political change—it misses the point. Voting is built upon the pillar of freedom. Freedom is “the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” Choice is intrinsic to freedom. Therefore if one chooses not to vote, and chooses instead to practice moral engagement in another form (such as by serving in the military, volunteering, or simply being kind), who are we to berate them?

Many people in my generation talk and post a lot about the importance of voting, but seldom bring up the specific candidates or issues being voted upon, which contributes to this superficial image of the “I Voted!” selfie. It is easy to post a selfie with a hashtag (#yourvoicematters, for example), but dialoguing compassionately about the thorny issues at hand is much more challenging. Social media posts and voter registration drives rally around the conviction that each vote matters, which isn’t wrong. But, as Poyner pointed out, what we do every day also matters. Actually, I argue that what we do every day matters more. Our daily behavior has a much greater influence on the world around us than the ballot we submit twice a year. As nineteenth century English writer and theologian Frederick William Faber wrote, “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”

My grandfather was never registered to vote, but he also always helped others before he would help himself. For most of his life, he drove an old shabby truck so he could give more money to his family. My parents didn’t vote in the recent midterm elections, but they are the kindest and most generous people I know. When I was a kid, I thought that my dad just knew everyone because he always said hello and smiled at strangers walking by. The other day, he gave a homeless man in Columbus twenty dollars. He volunteered for two years mentoring high school students in Cleveland on how to complete their college and FAFSA applications. My mom is always there to give advice to anyone who may want it and welcomes everyone into our home—my cousin jokes that our house is like an inn. One summer, my Italian friend Federica stayed with us for a month. Last year, my brother’s Australian friend Matt came to our Thanksgiving Day family reunion. And this year my Chinese friend Xue’Er will be unwrapping presents with us on Christmas morning. Regardless of whether or not my parents work the next day, I have always been encouraged to invite friends over for dinner, board games, and a sleepover. My parents are always eager and excited to get to know all of my friends and to help them in any way that they can. But according to some, since my dad isn’t registered to vote, he is a bad citizen who is unworthy of community.

Voting and daily moral engagement are not mutually exclusive, but one form of self-governance shouldn’t be valued more highly than another. Just because someone chooses not to vote doesn’t mean that they do not practice moral engagement in another form. Just because someone is not registered to vote, doesn’t mean they should be “deleted” from society. Threatening to ostracize someone based on whether they choose to vote or not impedes political progress by building more walls in an already divided nation.  

Jacqueline Knirnschild is a student at the University of Mississippi studying English and anthropology.