Blogs > Liberty and Power > Voting as Self-Defense: The Case of Black Disfranchisement

Feb 19, 2004 5:00 pm

Voting as Self-Defense: The Case of Black Disfranchisement

In answer to Pat Lynch , I am essentially on the same page as Roderick Long on this issue. I have voted every two years since 1974. I always vote Libertarian for president and sometimes, but not often, support Republicans or Democrats for lower offices. Last year, I even had the pleasure of being on the winning side when I voted against a proposed tax increase at the state level. My colleagues had long faces during the next day but I had a spring in my step and a smile on my face. At the same time, I think that nonvoting is a perfectly moral and reasonable strategy.

Why do I bother to turn out especially since my single vote has never mattered in these elections? In part, it is because it makes me"feel good" to express my views on people and issues, even in a small way. I have also have a more opportunistic reason. I have found that many defenders of voting will not even entertain a defense of non-voters and non-voting unless they know that I performed my" civic duty."

I think, however, that Roderick underestimates the validity of the self-defense argument for voting. The strength of the self-defense justification is especially clear if viewed from the perspective of certain politically repressed groups in history, even if we assume that no individual vote from a member of that group ever determines an election.

A case in point is the political history of Mississippi during the 1950s (a subject of my recent research). Although blacks constituted nearly half the state's population, fewer than two percent had the franchise. The end result is that both their property and lives were much less secure.

A well-known specific example from the period was killing of Emmett Till in Tallahatchie County in 1955. Like some other counties, it had a black majority but not a single black voter. Despite overwhelming evidence against the white defendants, an all-white jury acquitted them after less than an hour of deliberation. The jurors did this even though it is pretty clear that they recognized the guilt of the defendants. Had blacks been able to vote, they could have also served on this jury and better defended their rights. They could have also checked the power of the extremely racist sheriff in the county who blocked the investigation of the case. The fact that the entire group did not have the franchise undermined the rights of each individual in the group whether or not he or she ever cast a determining vote.

I have often found that black friends have an almost emotional attachment to the importance of voting and voting rights and have little interest in my"one vote doesn't matter" objections. Given the history of this period, I can see why they feel this way while, at the same time, appreciating the broader philosophical case against voting.

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