Today is a celebration of American democracy. People proudly display their “I voted” stickers to show that — Democrat, Republican or other — they have participated in the electoral process.
I am not one of those people.
As regular readers of this blog know, I don't vote — and never really have. (I think I voted for my friend James Fogarty for the neighborhood commission when I was an undergrad at Georgetown.) When I tell people about it, they are stunned. Like, floored.
“How could you not vote?” “You spend your whole life with this stuff!” “People fought and died for this right.” All full of common sense.
But, I still don't do it. I've given a variety of answers over the years for my stance on voting.
[Sidebar: I am under no illusion that any large number of people care deeply about whether I or any journalist votes. But (a) it's Election Day (b) I have been thinking a lot about it, and (c) I have a political blog. So ...]
When I was younger — before I was a reporter — it was sheer laziness. All people in their late teens and early 20s know what I am talking about.
Then once I started working as a journalist and then got hired at The Post, it was more of a principle thing. The editor in chief when I started at The Post in late 2005 was the legendary Len Downie, who, himself was a non-voter. Here's how Len explained his view on voting in an online chat in 1998:
We work hard here to not be biased and not appear to be biased. All our reporters and editors, for example, are prohibited from engaging in any political or interest group activity except voting. And I even refuse to vote so that I never make up my mind which party, candidate or ideology should be in power.
I’m part of a minority school of thought among journalists that we owe it to the people we cover, and to our readers, to remain agnostic about elections, even in private. I figure that if the news media serve as an (imperfect) umpire, neither team wants us taking a few swings.
There's a tendency to assume that reporters who don't vote make one of two mistaken assumptions:
1. Not voting means you are truly objective.
2. It makes you superior to your voting colleagues.
I believe neither. Most of the reporters I know vote. That they do so has zero impact on their merits as reporters. One of the great things of our Internet age is that all of our work as journalists is publicly available — you can see for yourself whether they are biased in some way shape or form. And, the simple act of refusing to vote tells you nothing about whether a reporter is rooting for one side or the other. In fact, if you wanted to throw people off the scent of a bias in your coverage, not voting would be a smart way to do it.
As I got older then, my principled (sanctimonious?) stance on voting evolved. And it became this: I don't vote these days out of defensiveness.
As a political reporter, people online (and off) are forever trying to “out” you, to show what your real politics are beneath your veneer of objectivity. They try to find shreds of evidence whether in your biography (I worked for George Will in college!) or your writing (Donald Trump has run a remarkably poor campaign) that are the tells for your “real” political views. Anything can be a clue — even (or especially) things that really say nothing about your beliefs.
Voting is the biggest touchpoint for people who believe they can divine your secret political agenda. Who did you vote for in the last election? they ask. If you aren't willing to tell them, it's taken as confirmation of the fact that you are actually a closet [whatever the opposite is of their party.]
I reject the idea that who you vote for in any given election speaks to some broader set of biases/views you carry that color your journalism. My two favorite politicians are Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer — one Republican, one Democrat. I don't like Schumer or Graham because of their party affiliations. I like them because they are consistently interesting on both politics and policy.
But, I am also a pragmatist. I don't deal in the world as I would like it to be, but the world that is. And, over the past five years or so — essentially, as social media has come to dominate politics and political journalism — the attempts to “prove” reporters political biases has become a near full-time job. So, I stay in my defensive crouch — a position I am not proud of but one that I feel has been forced upon me by the political world in which I exist.
That has the ring of martyrdom to it — which is not my intent. Simply put: I am not biased. Never have been. Never will be. But, I am also deeply committed to transparency in journalism, and I would never want to not answer honestly or fully if/when I am asked whether I voted and who I voted for. So, I take the path of least resistance.
Of course, I could not care what people say or how they try to twist words or votes to fit their own partisan conclusions. Maybe that will come sometime soon. Or maybe when I turn 50. But, in 2016, I will sit it out — as I have every election since I've been eligible to vote. I don't expect you to agree with me. But I do hope you might now understand my stance better.