Your friend has told you they’re not going to vote. What do you do?
Why would any American not vote when so many of our ancestors risked their lives to give us that right? Voting is important to democracy even under the best of circumstances. But this year’s presidential election — regardless of our partisan leanings — is likely to be the most important in our lifetime. This election isn’t just about Donald Trump and Joe Biden. At stake: the pandemic, climate change, health care, what, if anything, we do about systemic racism, and many more issues that affect our daily lives and our future.
During such a pivotal election year, how should we deal with friends and family who are choosing not to vote? Read on to find out how you might preserve your relationships — and your sanity. We have some basics on how to talk to them, and some specific arguments that may help get through.
There are lots of different reasons why people don’t exercise their right to vote, explained Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that breaks down the barriers to voter participation. Some don’t feel like they have enough information. Others are too bogged down with day-to-day responsibilities to make voting a priority. “We can help people remedy these issues,” Almeida said.
What’s especially problematic: When people don’t vote because they don’t think their voice matters. “These people won’t vote because they feel that, fundamentally, the system is broken,” Almeida said. “But refusing to participate doesn’t make the system better. In fact they are giving up their right to move the needle at all. No good comes of that."
Really listen to their reasons
Don’t blow off your nonvoting friends as simply ignorant and ill-informed, said Donnell Drinks, the election protection coordinator for the Pennsylvania ACLU. When we dismiss others, we are treating them as though their voices don’t matter and that’s the same vibe they are getting from elected officials.
“Understand their decision not to vote is their way of being heard, a form of rebellion," Drinks said. “The problem is many people — Black people and Black men — don’t see the positive changes that come from voting, nor do they see the negative change that comes from the lack of voting.”
Explain why voting is important to you
Share your personal story on why you vote, said David Nickerson, a professor of political science at Temple University. If this person likes you or at the very least respects you, they may be able to relate to your point of view. Keep your example short and sweet and refrain from shaming.
For example, Nickerson said, tell them about how a policy personally affected you or someone you’re close to. “It’s not about telling them who to vote for, it’s about being very clear why voting matters,” Nickerson said.
Consider these following scenarios.
“Politics are a waste of my time. I’m in the same boat no matter who is president.”
Real talk: A lot of people in poor and in underserved communities would be absolutely right when they say their quality of life doesn’t really change based on who is president, Nickerson said. That’s no reason, however, to let them off the hook, especially this year. The presidential candidates have such different policies, it’s likely they will be acutely felt on the local level on issues like funding for social programs and police reform. “One facet of democratic politics that people don’t appreciate is that everything is negotiated,” Nickerson said. “We all have to consider the candidate in this election who is going to negotiate on behalf of you and your community."
Your drop-the-mic answer: The decisions that affect your community and your livelihood are going to be made for you whether you vote or not. Don’t you want to play a part in choosing the people who will have a seat at the table and who will be speaking on your behalf?
“I don’t like either candidate. Why should I participate in a system that forces me to choose between the lesser of two evils?”
Real talk: The president is like the CEO of the company you work for: He isn’t your friend. “Voting for someone doesn’t mean that you think that person is perfect or you won’t take issues with their positions,” said Adjoa B. Asamoah, a political strategist whose focus is Black voter engagement. “It also doesn’t mean that you are 100% aligned with that person. Even our spouses don’t solve our problems. But someone has to manage this country.”
Your drop-the-mic answer: Don’t squander your right to vote because you’re not a fan of the candidates’ personalities. Vote and hold them accountable. If you don’t like their policies, vote them out the next election, but don’t let someone get in office who you know doesn’t give a hoot about improving your quality of life.
“My vote doesn’t matter.”
Real talk: Oh, but it does.
Voters in Pennsylvania will have a powerful impact on this year’s presidential election, said Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. This is because Pennsylvania is a swing state — meaning we can go either red or blue — and of the swing states, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes makes it the third-largest swing state behind Texas and Florida (which have 38 and 29, respectively). A presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election. “If Joe Biden wins Pennsylvania, there’s a chance he can win the whole election," Hopkins said.
And we aren’t just voting for a president. Pennsylvania voters will be choosing an attorney general, an auditor general, a treasurer, and seats in Congress and in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. These elected officials routinely make decisions that impact our day-to-day lives. For example, attorneys general in the past four years have been responsible for deciding whether or not to charge police officers in cases like George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s, or whether major tech companies such as Google and Facebook should be investigated for antitrust violations.
Your drop-the-mic answer: Every vote in this election counts. You don’t want to be among the few who cost your favored candidate — the one who is more likely to work on your behalf — to lose the election. The tighter the election, the more your vote will count.
“Trying to figure out how to vote is just too complicated.”
Real talk: Yes, voting is not easy, said Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote. Our system puts the onus on the voter to register — the deadline to register to vote in Pennsylvania is Oct. 19. And polling places change from year to year thanks to constant updates in redistricting.
This year brings the extra added stress of the coronavirus and a whole host of challenges and concerns for voting by mail. But help is out there.
» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's Voters Guide
There are places you can go for help, including Rock the Vote and former first lady Michelle Obama’s nonprofit When We All Vote. You can also check out Common Cause Pennsylvania for up-to-date information for voting in your county, or our guide at inquirer.com/howtovote.
Your drop-the mic-answer: If you don’t take advantage of your right to vote now, it could impact how you vote in future elections, experts say, because of redistricting or changes to voting laws.
Know when to fold
Here is the rub: Even after you lay out your case, other people’s decision on whether or not they vote is ultimately their choice. “With the right to vote comes the right not to vote," Almeida said. So understand when it’s time to let go. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and peace of mind will thank you.