Why I’m not Voting (for President)

November 2, 2016
Leading up to Election Day on November 8, iAt will be sharing more articles providing different perspectives on specific presidential candidates, as well as thoughts on voting for the first time for a presidential candidate. Come back to iAt regularly for more insights on exploring the implications of Christ’s presence in all facets of life.

On November 8, I don’t plan to vote for president. There, I’ve said it. And worse still, it’s not the first time that I’ve made this decision. If you feel the need to go fetch your pitchfork, go ahead, but while you’re sharpening it, hear me out. My reasons for reaching this decision may be different than others, but – after stalking my Facebook page – our esteemed managing editor has asked me to share my particular reasoning with the community, so here goes. Maybe I can both place my head on the chopping block and also draw it back again in 1000 words or less.

What is a Vote?

If I’m not voting for president this year, then the first thing I’ll need to explain is exactly what it is that I’m not doing. First, and most literally, a presidential vote is one voice among millions which helps to apportion the electoral college voters who actually elect the president. That is, none of us is actually directly electing the president. So, what are we doing? Kevin DeYoung published a nice post over on the Gospel Coalition’s website which explains the second, and more important, function of our votes: they speak to what we see as the greatest achievable “good.” By this explanation, DeYoung means something more than choosing the lesser of two evils; however, a “good” candidate is not “good” in the absolute sense, but instead “good” in the political sense. That is, a “good” candidate is characterized by the compromise that makes democracy function.

So if a vote reflects a certain sense of compromise, then my decision in this case reflects my unwillingness to accept either of the primary bargains offered to me.

I believe that all power is delegated from Christ, who has been vested with all authority on heaven and earth. He has charged government with certain tasks, and any government is ultimately answerable for how it carries out those tasks. More importantly, it is the institution that carries Christ’s delegated authority, not the individuals who run that institution. In my understanding, human flourishing is enabled by governmental awareness of the limitations of its power and by individuals who are conscious that their authority is rooted in the offices they hold, not vested in their persons.

In this election, both Clinton and Trump have shown themselves to consider power a matter of person, not office, by the way that they have abused the authority they have been entrusted with, and I refuse to take any positive steps to give either of them what they desire. I can submit to the governance of either, but I cannot abide saying that I voted for it.1

What is Wrong?

Perhaps you share my disgust with the principal candidates. Still, you may be asking, why shouldn’t I vote for a third party candidate instead? As a moderate conservative, I have no interest in Jill Stein, and the most reasonable path to the presidency for Evan McMullin is not about my vote. A more interesting case is Gary Johnson – the second choice of many conservatives – but I’m decidedly not a libertarian, since I think that libertarianism too often plays to the same societal problems that its liberal rivals foster.

This separation of extremes is essentially the argument that National Review editor Yuval Levin makes in his recent book, The Fractured Republic. Levin diagnoses the problems that we face as a loss of the middle institutions of society.2 The Millennial generation is, on the whole, more suspicious of institutions than any other generation. After all, for those on the Left, these middle institutions are insulators of the status quo, entrenching racism and other discrimination away from the reach of federal civil rights laws for decades. From the Right, many have bought into a dogged individualism that rejects any infringement on the personal prerogative.

As Levin points out, though, these perspectives are not mutually exclusive. The Left pushes to limit middle institutions through a consolidation of centralized power, while the libertarian Right rejects these same institutions for the way they constrain the individual. Instead, what society needs is a devolution of centralized power and a reinvigoration of these institutions that play such a vital role in instilling civic virtues and improving political engagement. Since the Libertarian party doesn’t embody this perspective on society, they haven’t earned my vote either.

What is Political Engagement?

But if I’m not voting for president, am I becoming passive in the political process? I could plead an exception based on the fact that I’m still voting for other offices, but I’d like to defend the validity of choosing to sit out the whole affair as well. So long as the decision is born of protest, not apathy, choosing not to vote is not rejecting political engagement, regardless of what society seems to insist.

This justification rests on the fact that politics is much more than how we vote. In fact, I’m not even sure that voting is the primary avenue of effecting political change, even though it clearly plays a role. There are whole levels of government that are almost entirely insulated from the democratic process. Whether we’re talking about the legal system or the administrative state, most of the people employed by the government enjoy some form of civil service or other job protection, and it makes a difference. Why is it that President Obama hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay, despite making this a key political promise since early in his first presidential campaign? Michael Glennon, an international law professor at Tufts University, explains this specific issue at length in his book, National Security and Double Government, but the gist is that presidents, by necessity, have to defer to agency experts who are often insulated from political pressures, resulting in a remarkable continuity of policy in many areas regardless of the party affiliation of the sitting president.

So how do we really engage in politics if resistance to change is the nature of the political system? For one, we can be deeply engaged in our local schools, churches, and community organizations while taking a more active interest in local politics, where we can have a more significant democratic impact. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need more Christians to consider entering the public service and working to effect change from within the political system in administrative agencies and political offices. When I lived in Washington D.C., I was amazed by how much of the grunt work of government was done by people under the age of 30, and this work was not lacking in policy impact. That’s part of the reason I decided to come to teach at the college level. Choosing not to vote is not (necessarily) failing to engage the political system, and, while I hope I don’t feel compelled to do it again in the future, I am confident in my decision not to vote for a candidate for president this coming election.

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

  1. Trump, who represents the party that I usually prefer, is arguably much worse on this count than Clinton, but Clinton’s handling of her email scandal, along with things like Whitewater and her handling of claims that her husband had sexually assaulted several women, show that she holds a similar perspective to Trump regarding the nature of power and the accountability of those who hold that power. 

  2. Middle institutions are all of those organizations that exercise power over individuals at a level between the individual and the highest level of government, for example, churches, schools, businesses, families, and civic organizations. 

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  1. I don’t mean to start a pile on, and I certainly respect your integrity as a conservative, to not vote for Trump just to protect your party’s position of power. I do wonder, however, if we have failed our immigrant, Latino, female, refugee, poor, Muslim brothers and sisters when we waffle like this in an election that has a candidate openly promising tangible harm to these groups of people? Just because it doesn’t really affect us either way, doesn’t let us off the hook to love our neighbors, and our neighbors are watching. They see the Trump signs and they feel what that means for them. How do you reconcile this factor with your decision not to vote?

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your comment. I think that a lot of the impact of the felt effect on those communities will occur down ticket, so I don’t think this is necessarily leaving them out to dry. At the same time, I don’t think that Hillary’s approach, relying on federal level enforcement, is the solution either. All this typically does is weaken the middle institutions that provide the glue that makes society work. It encourages us to see the federal government as the individual’s ally against what frustrates them at the local level. In the long term, I think that flourishing, for all people, lies through robust engagement at the local level, including all the humility, courage, and messiness that comes with navigating that.

      Ultimately, I would normally vote Republican, so withholding my vote will have more of a negative impact for Trump than Clinton, and I’m really saying I’d rather see a world where Clinton was elected than Trump, for reasons including those you mention; however, it’s not enough to swing me to actively supporting what Clinton stands for. I’m rejecting the binary choice, with a realistic assessment of what that means, hoping that Republicans can learn from this and do better next time around.

  2. I appreciate your article, Prof Roth. I read Yuval Levin’s book about a half year ago as well and thoroughly appreciated it. Dordt College’s own Jeff Taylor has written (which I suspect you know) a book with a similar theme, “Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism,” even if Taylor makes his point in a very different format.

    Levin and Taylor both pitch the idea that society is better off if we “govern” ourselves at “lower levels,” whether that be by non-governmental spheres (family, church, schools, community organizations, as you say) or by government spheres (local and state levels of government rather than the federal government). Of course, and as you point out, today’s Democrat Party is moving quickly in the opposite direction, toward the centralization of power and nearly all of it wielded by the federal government or large corporations that can be “managed” by the federal government, and Clinton promises to continue the policies of Barack Obama in that respect.

    I share your dim view of both candidates. Still, I will be voting for Trump, even if I doubt he is aware of what the word “subsidiarity” even means (Levin uses that word in his book of course), and even if I can’t stomach Trump in so many ways, because I calculate the chances of one to several “originalist” jurists making it to the to the Supreme Court is much greater if Republicans (even if in the person of Trump) hold the federal executive branch than Democrats (Clinton or otherwise frankly). In other words, I’ll be voting for a party, not a person, when I vote for Trump. If this nation is to return to a more appropriate degree of “subsidiarity,” it will be of critical importance that the US Constitution is interpreted in a way that continues placing meaningful limits on the power of government, especially federal government. Absent that, I can’t imagine that the societal decentralizing (subsidiarity) you, I, Yuval Levin and Jeff Taylor would all like to see, will be possible.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m curious what will happen with the Garland nomination should Clinton be elected, but I don’t think the Supreme Court situation is as dire as others think; although it is a risk. I see Garland being very much like what Sandra Day O’Connor was previously, meaning that this would really just restore the Court to a pre-Alito balance of power, which was still viewed as a more conservative court. That said, Garland seems fairly deferential to federal power, so he’s certainly not ideal, but he is clearly qualified.

      After that, the next most likely jurists to leave would be Ginsburg, Breyer, and Thomas, in probably that order. I don’t think any of the three of them are apt to leave in anything short of a casket, so it’s really about the odds of any of the three of them dying in the next four versus the next eight years. To my mind, there’s no way Trump is a two-term president, and the backlash means he’s probably replaced by a Democrat. Given recent preferences, there’s a good chance that new Democrat is a two-term president. At the same time, Hillary will almost certainly remain eminently beatable in four years, meaning, if Republicans get their act together, a possible two-term Republican. That means it comes down to how much you want to bet on the next four years, plus how much you can stomach Trump. I think he’s poison, and I think his victory would mean ending the political careers of people like Ben Sasse, who I think have a potential as future voices of the party, so my calculus keeps me from pulling the trigger.

  3. While I can’t cast a principled ballot for either of the two major party candidates for president, I believe a pragmatic vote for one or the other of them can be legitimate. Similarly, a pragmatic “protest” vote for a third party candidate is licit as indeed is a principled decision to abstain. I am planning, however, to combine principle and protest by voting for the candidates of the American Solidarity Party (http://www.solidarity-party.org/). The ASP attempts to fuse Catholic subsidiarity and Reformed sphere sovereignty and, while I do not agree with each element of its platform, I fully support its principled approach to political life.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Scott. I’m actually quite curious about what it would do to American politics if we had an actual moderate party. There are some issues where that’s already functionally true, due to the importance of swing voters, but it would add a new, perhaps healthy, dynamic to the American political calculus. Of course, we like to view things as a binary, so it’s probably not a realistic option, but interesting nonetheless.

  4. Interestingly, John Piper published this today: “I am saying that the children of God are free to hear the voice of their Master about how to best witness to his supremacy. I will vote. But I have no intention of voting for either of these presidential candidates.” http://www.desiringgod.org/christian-you-are-free-not-to-vote

    I’m with Prof Roth & Pastor Piper – I don’t intend to vote for either of the two major party candidates, for pretty obvious reasons, and I certainly support a choice not to vote.

    Here’s 27 reasons not to vote for Donald Trump, and why I’m considering a vote for Gary Johnson: https://www.facebook.com/notes/tom-de-jong/27-reasons-why-i-refuse-to-vote-for-drumpf-and-why-i-may-vote-for-gary-johnson/10154729269914292. He’s “small L libertarian” and I believe, like Prof Roth, would like to see a return of power to state and local leaders. He’s even been criticized for not being a “true Libertarian” as he focuses his efforts on decreasing mostly federal gov’t power.

  5. Genuinely curious: you say that your vote wouldn’t help Evan McMullin win; that’s almost certainly true, but it does seem that votes for him could have value as protest votes, sending the message that reasonable political conservatives who are unwilling to sacrifice principles for party still exist in this country, and that we care enough to vote. (I’m not saying that you don’t care; obviously you’ve put some thought into this).

    Perhaps you find McMullin’s experience lacking, or perhaps you have other objections – but if your only reason not to vote for him is the fact that doing so won’t help him win, would you reconsider your no-vote stance?

  6. Things I learned from your opinion piece:
    You are very intelligent and a great writer.
    You think bravely and carefully.
    You care about yourself, country, and family.
    You have never worked for a publically traded company or Large business and if so only for a short time

    Those rang true in your arguments and the latter was what was very apparent. I could be wrong, however, I could be right and we are definitely all a lil crazy. Godspeed