D.C. and the Problem of “Just Vote” Ideology

JAMES GORDY: On October 5th, protestors gathered outside the office of Senator Susan Collins to question her decision to vote to invoke cloture and advance Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The protests followed brave actions by a number of sexual assault survivors confronting Republican senators over their support of Kavanaugh.

The response to these demonstrations was typified by Joe Scarborough tweeting, “Don’t yell at senators, don’t shout at people in restaurants, don’t rage on about past votes. 1. REGISTER 2. VOTE 3. GET YOUR FRIENDS TO VOTE.” The statement on restaurants was perhaps a reference to the protests against Senator Ted Cruz in September and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in June, organized by Smash Racism D.C. and Metro D.C. DSA respectively.

Encouraging people to vote has been used as a rhetorical weapon to question the legitimacy of protests. Donald Trump did exactly the same in response to the Women’s March in 2017. Imploring people to vote is especially hollow when millions of people are systematically denied their right to vote.

Residents of the District of Columbia will go to the polls in 2018 knowing that regardless of the results, their votes for non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton will have no effect on the balance of the House of Representatives. They will not even have an option to vote for a non-voting member of the Senate.

The votes of the seven hundred thousand residents of the District will not matter, despite their overwhelming preference for statehood. The voters of D.C. have been taught routinely that their votes do not matter, be it in national elections or local political decisions. The congressional veto over local political decisions remains in place given that Congress controls the District’s budget, allowing a body that D.C. doesn’t even have a voting member in to wield powerful influence over local decisions.

Protests by local D.C. activist groups against national politicians is the closest that many D.C. residents can get to having their views represented in federal government decision-making. Placing voting on a pedestal as the only proper way to have one’s opinions reflected in policymakers’ decisions is simply a tool to attack and dismiss the valid points raised by protests against elected officials.

Voting is a form of civic participation in a democracy, and it is an important one, but it is not the end all of citizen engagement with elected officials. D.C. residents are wisely using their proximity to the people in power to make their voices heard in a process that systematically denies them a voice.

Max Magid