Voting As A Spiritual Practice

We vote not only to win, but we vote for what is yet possible.

Image by Getty Images

Our times are aggressive and confounding, making many uncertain of what to think and wary of getting involved. In the election of 2016 more people did not vote than voted for any of the candidates, and we’re all feeling the effects of that now. With the elections on Nov 6th we get another chance to have our say, and I would urge everyone eligible to grab it. Step out of the shadows, all of you who did not vote in 2016. Engaging with the world, acting from your values, is as much a spiritual practice as it is a civic duty. I’ve long thought of voting as a sacred act.

The ability to vote struck me long ago as similar to the Buddha’s teaching about the innate dignity, the innate worth of all. From the time I first heard it, I thought of the Buddha’s view on this breathtaking. People are easily beset by ignorance of course, or persuaded to distorted views — we see this every day, sometimes in others, sometimes, truth be told, in ourselves. But nothing actually destroys that capacity within to grow, to love, to develop wisdom. To call someone indelibly unworthy of having a voice, or to discount them from having a sense of empowerment in how their lives are governed, seems to me to reflect one of the biggest distorted views of all.

And to take ourselves out of that engagement is deeply sad, and very consequential. If it is true that we live in an interconnected universe, what happens to others inevitably affects us. What happens “over there” never nicely just stays “over there” — it ripples out. And what we do over here matters. This is not just a spiritual realization — science shows us this; economics shows us this; environmental awareness certainly shows us this, and even epidemiology shows us this.

In different elections, I’ve had friends say to me they weren’t voting because there were only marginal differences between the candidates. My response has been, “There are lots of people who live in those margins.” Your life might not be obviously touched by a raise in minimum wage, or a decrease in veteran’s benefits, or the presence or absence of public transportation, but plenty of peoples’ lives are. For them, whether or not you act to vote on values of inclusion or compassion may profoundly impact their lives. What may be a small difference in our eyes can be a big difference for someone else. And remember, the effects ripple out in this interconnected universe. We don’t really live in isolated silos, disconnected form everyone else — it just feels that way sometimes.

Voting can be an open-hearted expression of what you care about. By expressing yourself instead of hanging back, you consider how to express your values in daily life. This makes voting another chance for community. If your community is voting about spending more money on the parks, or fixing up the libraries, you might go to a park or visit the library, taking you into your world in fresh ways. You may see things you’d only glanced at in passing more sharply from this defined point of view. Say you go to the park for the first time in years because of the ballot proposition and discover that it is shabby or unsafe. Then you want to know if this ballot measure is going to improve the lives of you and your neighbors, so you read up on it and ask around. This is a healthy connection with your surroundings, one that makes you glad you have a say.

The cynical among us groan at any sense of civic pride. It’s all lies, some say to me; everyone is out for themselves in politics and we never get the whole story, never will. Sometimes at the heart of this doubt is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the woes around us. The act of voting, of standing alone in that booth marking off your choices, seems so small and ineffectual. Often the election results are not what you wanted, and who wants to be a loser? And yet… every time I vote I know I do it from a place of caring, and I don’t see how apathy, cynicism, a perpetual sense of defeat, and armoring myself against caring are any better!

For some, there is a big gulf between the emotional satisfaction found in protesting and a less satisfying engagement with the dynamics of power, which is what an election is. But without that engagement, day-to-day life for so many will just get harder and harder. I was in a car, with a friend driving, heading to NYC the day the climate change march was happening in 2014. An estimate of more than 300,000 people marched. I watched some of it on my phone as I got closer to the city. I was inspired watching so many take action for something they valued, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow citizens. But at the same time, two months before midterm elections, I had the thought, “I wonder how many of these people will vote.” I wonder how many did.

The act of voting is one that people have died to protect. Voting is not just a civic responsibility but an expression of our dignity, and evidence that what we do matters in this world. We vote not only to win, but we vote for what is yet possible. 

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