One of the Quakers’ many peculiarities is their spotted history of abstaining from voting. I have seen and heard others reference this conviction as though it was once widely held, but I have found little evidence either way (perhaps due in part to the pandemic and having limited resources). What I have found is that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at one point did not approve of voting. In addition to stating firmly that Friends were not to hold any political office, their Rules of Discipline is also clear that they were not to help elect anyone: “It is also the sense and judgment of this meeting, that Friends ought not, in any wise, to be active or accessory in electing, or promoting to be elected, their brethren.”1 This was added in 1762, so at that point it had nothing to do with our presidential elections, but it is easy to make the connection.
Paul Buckley writes in a Friends Journal piece that other yearly meetings adopted similar prohibitions (so they were at one point widely-held!), and that these bans were clear: “Friends were admonished not to support or vote for any office seeker, whether or not the candidate was a Friend.”2 This history seems to have been forgotten, understandably, as it is almost the opposite of how most contemporary Friends view their role in politics. These days, Friends are known for being active in the political world—they run for office, vote, volunteer to “get out the vote,” offer their meetinghouses to be used as polling places, and so on. I only know of one person (in “real life”) who maintains the call to abstain from voting.
This previously common but now seemingly rare practice of not-voting stems in part from an understanding that government is violent—and violence is, of course, not something that Quakers can condone. In other words, being “anti-voting” was seen, and is still seen by some, as a natural extension of being anti-war. “War is Not the Answer” is a popular Quaker bumper sticker—and I guess the widely-accepted answer now is to vote and lobby, to act toward and to hope for less war. All Quakers have and articulate a desire to act on their conscience and in line with their values—for these mid-eighteenth-century Friends and for some individual Friends today, this translates to not voting. For most Friends today, this translates to political involvement, including but certainly not limited to voting for presidential candidates who best represent, or who desecrate least, their values.
Four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be sitting here considering the “ethics” of not voting. I would have argued instead, and fervently, for harm reduction—but I don’t think I can do that anymore. In the same article on “Why Quakers Stopped Voting,” Buckley speaks of his own experience of voting for Obama in 2008. He says he did so hoping to “symbolically repudiate racism” and hoping for an end to war and war crimes. Reflecting soberly on his involvement, his vote and any other ways he may have supported the campaign, he writes: “There is blood on my hands.”3 I cannot imagine voting this time without afterwards feeling heavy, like I have condoned things not in line with my values. It may be that I end up feeling the same way about abstaining from voting—it may be that whatever I do, there will be blood on my hands. The violence of The American Empire is inescapable. Maybe the best I can hope for is less blood.
In some ways, the “lesser of two evils” argument seems more appropriate now than it did four years ago, for the evil now seems more apparent. Both Biden and Trump have been accused of sexual assault and both have a long history of violating women—though that is not, unfortunately, where their similarities end. My initial reaction to that is quick, simple, and emotional: are these really our options, and if they are, no thank you. I saw a tweet the other day (@mariethearose) that spoke to my condition, to my exhausted aching for more goodness and less evil: “When do we get to vote for no evil?”
And when it comes to measuring evil, how does that work? Can I really say whether one option is “less evil” than the other? Marshall Massey, a contemporary Friend, speaks to this in a blog post from 2006, and in many ways, he speaks my mind:
“I can see the wisdom of voting for candidates as a measure to stop some juggernaut of evil—but in that case, one must be sure that the candidates one is voting for will indeed slow a juggernaut and not just sell out to it or replace one juggernaut with another . . .”4
I don’t have that kind of confidence this time around, though I am not sure that I did four years ago either. I voted, and I cried myself to sleep on election night because I knew what was coming in spite of my vote. I lived like a ghost the next week, developed a fever, and though the fever passed, little else changed. Things were more comfortable for me, and for many of us, before that night. But this incredible discomfort—this steady, daily, near-crippling fear—is more likely a result of exposure than an actual change in our cultural climate.
The curtain has been lifted for those like me who, for their various intersections of power and privilege, were previously unable to see or were otherwise shielded from the whole of the evil around us and within us. Now that my eyes are at least more open, it seems clear to me that voting is not going to save us. What is the answer, then—what is going to save us? Massey asks his fellow Friends:
“Given that our time on earth is finite, and every minute of it precious . . . why is working for the election of one party over another, a better choice for you and me than working for the reign of God in the hearts of all?”5
As a Humanist-leaning, Quaker-leaning sort of person, “working for the reign of God in the hearts of all” is a line that gets translated as I take it in. Perhaps a simple replacement of the word God with the word Love or Light (as Quakers are fond of doing) would be sufficient: let us talk instead about the “reign of Love in the hearts of all.” Does participating in the drama of the presidential election contribute to that goal in any significant way? My answer to that question, simply, is no. I will still pay attention—I will, for example, call out the stark, sickening, and not-surprising racism in Biden’s recent campaign ad. But I cannot vote for, and therefore approve of, this supposed lesser evil, and I can see that reading and watching too much about the drama is a misuse of my time and energy.
I have two main reasons why I don’t plan to vote. The first is that I worry about how it would change me if I were to vote in this election, knowing what I know and feeling what I feel. I worry that I would walk away feeling like Buckley that “I have blood on my hands.” I do not think I can go against my values and cast my vote for a xenophobic, racist man accused of sexual assault—either one of them. Second, it is clear to me that participating to any significant degree in these processes is not a fruitful use of my sacred energy, for it will not help us move toward the realization of the world we seek.
I am not trying to encourage anyone not to vote. Vote if you want, and vote however you must, but if you care about what I care about—“the reign of Love,” if you will—let us focus the bulk of our energy elsewhere. As my friend Hye-Sung said recently, this is the time to “get serious about loving your neighbor,” to get involved and to organize—for it is “way past time to build a new world.” I am not suggesting political apathy exactly but a redirection of our energy into that which we can actually change, into that which can actually contribute to a better, new world. Our vote will not save us, though it may shield some of us from reality a little bit longer. No presidential candidate will save us. This state has no interest in saving us. We are the only ones who can save us.
- Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Printed by direction of the Representative Committee or Meeting for Sufferings, 1868), 24, Internet Archive. ↩
- Paul Buckley, “Why Quakers Stopped Voting,” Friends Journal, October 1, 2016, https://www.friendsjournal.org/quakers-stopped-voting/. ↩
- Buckley, “Voting.” ↩
- Marshall Massey, “Contra Gentes: Is Voting Such a Good Thing?” Earth Witness, October 23, 2006, journal.earthwitness.org/the-quaker-magpie-journal/2006/10/23/contra-gentes-is-voting-such-a-good-thing.html. ↩
- Massey, “Contra Gentes.” ↩