The National Campus Voter Registration Project is an effort of 50 leading higher education organizations to increase voter registration and turnout among college students. Its slogan? Your Vote, Your Voice.
While it is a lovely slogan, it is exactly not true that "your voice is your vote." Your voice is your voice. Your vote is something else.
Here is what I mean. A voice is communicative. It expresses emotion, nuance, depth, and meaning. It can be used to build relationships, to extend discussions, and to solve problems. In a democracy, these things are hallmarks of civic engagement.
A vote is mute, in three ways. First, it is mute in its casting. The voting hall is politically silent--no signs, no speeches, no posters. And the voting booth is as well, since the main characteristic of the vote in the United States is secrecy--"the secret ballot."
Second, it is mute in its impact. Unless a voter decides to declare his or her vote, it is unknown. And even if it is known, a vote in itself is powerless. Voting isn't a race, with the first candidate past a certain number of votes declared the winner. And in our system, even tightly contested elections are almost never determined by a single vote, and when they are, no one knows whose vote.
Third, a vote hides meaning. The process of voting for a candidate is one of condensing a whole range of a voter's views, feelings, priorities, interests, and values into a single act that conveys none of them. Think about it this way. Does knowing that a person voted for a particular candidate help you know that person more deeply? Of course not, since what matters in knowing a person is not who they voted for, but why. Living in a state like Utah, I am confident that the vast majority of my neighbors will be voting for Mitt Romney. That tells me nothing about them, and does nothing to help us work together for good.
None of this is to say that voting is bad, or useless. Voting is a ritual, its silence is something that should be applauded, and the sense of duty that often drives it is a valuable thing in a democracy. And the overall uncertainty about the future that is bound up in the vote--uncertainty about the outcome of the election and its impact--is an important reminder of how modest we should be about predicting the future.
Nor is it to say that a voice is always a good thing. One need only recall all of the pointless "debate" and misleading rhetoric to know that. But only if after one takes the mute act of voting, one goes into public and private venues and explains that vote, does the vote do something for civil society. And at that point, it does so because of the voice, not the vote.
Headline: Letter From Liberia
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