Votes Matter

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 (Paul Staley)

They were the three most important words of 2014:

Black lives matter.

But so do black votes, or for that matter, brown votes or young votes, or the vote of any citizen who has an opinion about how laws should be enforced or civil rights protected in our communities.  But last summer, during all the demonstrations, I had a suspicion that many of the people chanting the other, more infamous three words of the year -- "I can't breathe" -- would have had to make another three-word admission -- "I didn't vote" -- if asked about their participation in local elections.

The recent municipal elections in Ferguson, Missouri, the epicenter of the controversy, illustrate this problem.  A tripling of voter turnout heartened community leaders, but the sad footnote to this improvement is that voter participation was still only 30%.

The right to demonstrate and the right to vote are both privileges we enjoy in a free society. But they are very different actions. One is cathartic and an expression of solidarity. The other is deliberative, and only in the phony plebiscites of a dictatorship is voting an exercise in unanimity.


To be fair, demonstrators deserve credit for having forced the country to confront the problem of police conduct in communities of color. But demonstrations are only a way to register our objection to factors such as racism that we also realize will never completely disappear. Governance is how we make sure that our laws and their enforcement are not infected or distorted by bias.

Government can be clunky, but voting has an inherent logical efficiency; by definition it reflects the will of those who voted.  But that result may be at odds with the interests of the larger community if only a minority casts ballots.

On a final note, among last year's other controversies was the Academy of Motion Pictures' decision not to include "Selma" as one of the nominees for Best Picture.  But, perhaps the Academy's action was appropriate: why should it have recognized a movie depicting the struggle to obtain the right to vote when millions of Americans can't be bothered to exercise that very right?

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.