#594: Voting Does Matter – An Open Letter to the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye

February 12th, 2016

On Feb. 8, 2016, eight days before the Illinois online voter registration deadline, RedEye — a website and small print tabloid the Chicago Tribune puts out to catch the commuter crowd — published a pro-con on voting pitting two 24-year-old journalists against each other.

Catching most of the online flack was Rianne Coale, who wrote the piece “I’ve Never Voted: Here’s Why.” Five-second review: Sad and self-defeating, the author of RedEye’s voting guide saying voting is confusing and dull.

Easy target. No points me.

Although Coale’s limp blurb frustrated, I found Tyler Davis’ pro-voting piece more disturbing in the long run. Here’s how it ended:

“But if you’d rather not vote, I’m not going to judge. I imagine that nonvoters must look at this whole system and feel powerless, and uninformed voters probably feel overwhelmed. Personally, I feel empowered when I vote.”

I do judge. Because their apathy should not be seen as equal to my action. And frankly, Davis, it’s not about how you feel.

So, leaving out of it the two 24-year-olds who will move on to regret this moment in their careers, here is an open letter to the editors of the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye on their decision to legitimize and normalize political self-castration.

RedEye’s Coin

First, people suffered, fought and died for the right to vote. That’s the big, main, obvious argument. African-Americans were murdered for trying to vote. Women fought and struggled for the right.

That doesn’t mean one particular 24-year-old reporter or the other should vote.

But it does mean a newspaper, even a faux-hip freebie with a heavy sports lean and a crossword simple enough to complete on an ‘L’ ride, should think seriously about what it considers “both sides of the coin.”

On Twitter, RedEye responded to some critical tweets by saying the pro-con tried to present, in their words, both sides of the coin. By even framing the issue that way, they gave false legitimacy to doing nothing.

There is no coin. The metaphor is flawed.

Engaging in a specific activity and not caring aren’t opposites. Coale’s arguments against voting included “I still don’t feel the overwhelming drive to want to” and “Honestly, I didn’t care all that much.”

Her arguments could equally be against donating to charity, recycling or visiting elderly relatives. I have said both of those things about watching the Super Bowl.

Apathy is not a viewpoint. Putting it as a con places it on equally valid footing as the pro. Just by asking the question, you’re legitimizing nothingness, RedEye.

Reasons to Vote

While Coale’s poppy nihilism makes me sad, Davis’ self-saving activism infuriates.

“It’s never occurred to me that I could skip voting” and “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about being an active participant” are not reasons to vote.

It is about winning. Because winning means creating a governing body that will put into practice the values you hold dear.

I value the environment, gay rights, reproductive freedom, not bombing Syria and the health care program that has protected me for about two years. If someone gets into power who takes those away, the knowledge I was an active participant is cold comfort. My dentist takes Obamacare, not self-congratulation.

Again, this is on RedEye, not Davis or Coale. RedEye asked two writers to write about what voting does for them.

That’s never been what voting is.

What Voting Is

Voting is civic involvement. It’s weighing in on issues from who should lead the military to who should be the local judges deciding traffic cases and divorces.

It’s a boring chore. It’s not there to be interesting, Coale. It’s not there to be affirming, Davis. But more importantly, RedEye, its value should never be debated on what it does for me.

Waiting in line on a cold day in a school gym or dank municipal building while work is looming and I’m getting texts from my friends about more entertaining life options has never been about me.

It’s about society. It’s about getting the best person to lead that army or rule on that custody.

I don’t think voting is the end-all, be-all of civic involvement. It’s actually sort of flaccid compared to volunteering, activism or even charity donation.

And I sure don’t think my voting canonizes me. It’s the bare minimum. I don’t feel proud of voting. I just feel responsible and adult.

March Showers

Voting is as fundamental to my moral upkeep as showering is to my hygiene. I don’t wear an “I bathed today!” sticker. I just complete the act on a regular schedule as a small part of feeling clean.

Take from my voting/showering metaphor three things:

  1. Don’t get all high and proud for completing the bare minimum. Don’t brag about bathing.
  2. You shouldn’t let your civic involvement stop with voting any more than your hygiene stops with soap and water. Volunteer, organize, rally. Put on deodorant, scrub your hair, floss. Educate yourself on the issues, support groups doing the work (and “support” means doing something to make their slog easier, not just thinking they’re great) and brush your damn teeth because, civically, your breath stinks.
  3. I get it. Life happens. Some elections you can’t get to the polls just like some mornings you slap on a little extra aftershave or perfume and hope no one notices. But the longer you go without participating in the activity, the more unpleasant you make the world for people around you. It’s not clever or alternative to brag that you don’t vote. All I hear is “I haven’t showered since Bush/Kerry and I feel fine.”

I know about superdelegates and gerrymandering and the primary system and the horrible fact the Electoral College works to suppress the people’s power, exactly as the framers intended. There have been billions of dollars spent to disenfranchise voters and make sure the politically inconvenient never make it to the polls.

The system is corrupt and rigged against you by countless interests that, even if you knew them all, you would never be able to fight.

But there was one right these interests could not strip away, that was so fundamental to the concept of democracy that, even with all their resources and savvy, they could not take away from you.

So you decided to take it away from yourself for them.

The End

It’s a silly article in a silly free tabloid with a sports lean and a child-level crossword, but it’s still scary to hear such nihilism from a newspaper. The non-voter says the act doesn’t matter because it does nothing for her. The voter says it doesn’t matter what anyone does, other than him.

I don’t blame them though. I was a 24-year-old reporter once. You do your best with what you’re asked for and you’re just glad for the clips.

To the RedEye editors who ran this stunt, voting is an issue to be debated on how it makes the voter feel, not what it does for society. They consider “I don’t care” the opposite of “This is a good thing to do.”

And the Chicago Tribune, “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” happily put out a commuter-friendly freebie where both sides of a non-debate debate told a disenfranchised city it’s OK and valid to sit any election out.

CBS Chicago’s Mason Johnson’s take on the article

Chicagoist’s Anthony Todd weighed in as well

Register to vote

And, cleansing my palate of this political nonsense, meet a group of old ladies and their gang-fighting microgardens

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