Every vote is a protest vote. When a voter enters a booth to cast his or her electoral endorsement of one candidate over another, it is an expression of dissatisfaction with a set of policies proposed by the candidate’s opponent. The voter is likely marking grievances over decisions made under the current local or federal administration. Perhaps the voter is noting concern over the potential threat one party poses in contrast to another. This all comes with the territory. In fact, for many of you reading this piece, the very act of voting is a protest, as you may not have enjoyed the right to vote mere decades ago, much less at the nation’s founding. Your vote serves as a reminder to those with political authority that you still hold some semblance of power in the process of governance. So what does it mean to designate only certain votes as “protests” when, technically speaking, they all fall under that category?
Classifying only some votes as “protest” votes, particularly those cast in favor of parties beyond our binary political system, supplies the means by which journalists and pundits dismiss the constitutionally-protected freedoms of the general population. Despite the baseless criticism that third-party voters are “privileged” or “selfish,” a better word to describe them (and any other candidates’ supporters) would simply be “voters.” After all, their vote is theirs alone and no one has the right to dictate their decisions. That doesn’t mean many won’t try.
The pressure to openly declare one’s vote or shame another’s has only increased in this age of rapid news consumption and social media. Many with a public platform – from reporters at MSNBC and the New York Times to the part-time writers for the neighborhood circular and people on Twitter you will never meet – will spend a considerably unhealthy amount of time this election season telling you what to do. Frequently missing from this discussion, however, will be the simple fact that how you vote, including whether you choose to vote at all, is your business.
No one should tell you what to do with your vote any more than they should tell you how to exercise any of your other rights. Major parties, members of the media, and many fellow voters defend other constitutional rights with substantial vigor. Democrats, for example, often emphasize the “right to choose” with regard to reproductive decisions, and the “right to love” in defense of same-sex marriage. On the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans defend the “right to bear arms,” in response to gun control measures, and “the right of free speech” amid calls to limit polemic content. Though the two parties place a disparate degree of emphasis on these specific rights, they find agreement in their abhorrence of protest and voting. It should come as no surprise, then, that they view the point where these two rights converge with considerable hostility.
If we examine this tendency in the contemporary history of Republicans and Democrats since the 1990s, we see that both parties have expressed considerable discontent with individuals and organizations engaged in activities that challenge the status quo. These organizations include ACT Up, the AIDS activist group that was on the receiving end of Bill Clinton’s ire during his 1992 campaign and protesters against the neoliberalism of the World Trade Organization in 1999. They include the many movements that formed during the George W. Bush era in protest of the War in Iraq. More recently, in the years of the Obama administration, they include Occupy Wall Street, the anti-fracking movement, Black Lives Matter, and multiple campaigns against the mass detention and deportation of immigrants. During all three administrations, Republican and Democratic officials at the municipal, state, and federal level have not only overseen the demonization of these activist groups but also insisted upon acts of violence and infiltration in hopes of dampening and eventually destroying the movements entirely.
Despite these challenges, protests remain in focus so long as they are active and leave a legacy in their wake. The worthy cause for voting rights, on the other hand, receives our attention during presidential elections, only to die down shortly after the vote is finalized and inauguration has passed. Some incidents, however, compel a more sustained focus in the public consciousness.
Bush v. Gore, for example, remains one of the most well-documented and widely-cited episodes recent cases of irregular elections, though more recent cases of problems in voting prove equally disturbing. The events that transpired in Arizona and New York during this year’s Democratic Party primary, Republican efforts to limit voters of color at the polls and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act should all serve as cautionary tales to anyone who takes the right to vote for granted. Greg Palast, Brad Friedman, Richard Charnin, Ari Berman, and several organizations like Election Justice USA and Black Box Voting have made it their life’s work to expose problems in the U.S. voting system and the practices and technology we rely upon to sustain it. Disappointingly, beyond the scattered and toothless calls for electoral reform that government officials present during election season, voters see little change.
Is it any wonder that citizens who feel poorly represented and who have little faith in a flawed electoral system are less than enthusiastic about casting their vote in favor of either of the parties that sustain these conditions?
These citizens are not alone in their doubts. Enthusiasm has been down since the primaries and favorability ratings for both candidates have continued to plummet. Accordingly, many of those who will show up to pull levers and press buttons in support of Clinton or Trump are also casting a “protest” vote, an inevitability in a system focused on two parties in which the candidates rely in large part on their respective voters’ disgust of the other candidate in order to win. In this election, Clinton has depended on this method far more than Trump, who has focused most of his campaign on fear and resentment of the racial and religious “other.” Clinton, by contrast, has focused her campaign on Trump’s personality and the desperate need to defeat him as opposed to the progressive Democratic party platform.
As a result, Clinton has garnered the support of many “establishment” Republicans who prefer to shield themselves from criticism for their current and prior bad acts against the same groups Trump antagonizes. For them, publically endorsing and casting a vote for Clinton is a “protest” against the current state of their party. Clinton voters who hate Trump’s rhetoric and proposed policies are casting a vote in “protest” as well. Likewise, Trump’s followers see their vote as a “protest” against groups they feel are undeserving of government support and against policies they believe have had deleterious effects on their social and economic quality of life.
Ultimately, the idea of a “protest” vote goes beyond the realm of so-called third parties and independent candidates to aptly describe all of our voting decisions, whether we are willing to recognize it or not. A much healthier practice in lieu of focusing on the “protest” votes of others would be to make an affirmative case for your candidate of choice, to challenge your candidate to make an affirmative case for him/herself, and to consider that both the right to protest and the right to vote are crucial components of a democratic society. If we ever hope to be one, we must work toward protecting these rights and not disparaging those who choose to exercise them at the ballot box and beyond.