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Some Arrested Oregon Protestors Didn’t Vote. So What?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 14:16
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Conservative corners of social media have been having a chuckle at a story out of Portland, Oregon, about how some of the people arrested there for protesting the election of Donald Trump did not participate in the vote.

Here’s the original piece, from Portland TV station KGW, which has since gone viral and been picked up by outlets including The Daily Caller, The Washington Free Beacon, and New York Magazine, to name a few.

The original report explains how the station cross-checked a list of 112 arrested protesters against voter rolls and found that 35 of them did not cast a ballot on Election Day and 35 others were not registered to vote. As a matter of fact, that means the arrested protesters voted at almost the same rate as the general population—take out the 35 who weren’t registered and the remaining arrested protesters had a turn-out rate of 55 percent, compared to 58 percent for all registered voters nationally.

Within conservative media, though, this story has taken on a completely different slant.

“Portland Takes To The Streets To Protest, But Not To The Polls To Vote,” blares a headline on Red State, bylined by Susan Wright. “If you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain when you don’t like the outcome,” she says.

The conservative social media reaction was captured by Twitchy, which declared the non-voting status of some protestors to be “comedy gold.

Let me be clear: in no way am I defending of the violent riots in Portland (or elsewhere) that have damaged property and hurt people. The rioters in Portland should be criticized (and have been, including by my colleagues) for their violent actions and also for their decision to protest the outcome of the election while remaining silent on other abuses of power.

That being said, an individual’s status as a voter or non-voter does not change their right to protest—peacefully—in the aftermath of an election or in response to any other action taken by the government. Constitutional rights do not apply only to those who vote. The 42 percent of registered voters who skipped the election still have the right to protest, as does any American who isn’t registered to vote.

The implied argument—one made quite explicit by Wright and others—seems to be that if these protesters don’t like the outcome of the election, they should have showed up to vote in an attempt to change it.

Except, no, because that’s not how presidential elections in this country work.

Oregon was won by Hillary Clinton (and it wasn’t particularly close). Those protesters could have voted until they were blue in the face and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. In fact, the only thing that would have changed is that Clinton would have ended up with a slightly larger victory in the popular vote.

There’s a second implication here, too, which is that voting is the only way to influence social change. “Don’t like things, vote for something else” is both an oversimplified understanding of how and why changes happen and also a historically inaccurate one. Protests and mass movements have done at least as much to change the course of government policy throughout American history as even the most significant elections (this year’s so-called “change election” saw 97 percent of incumbent congressmen returned to office, for example).

Again, none of this is meant to endorse the violent actions by some rioters in Portland and other cities around the country during the past week. I’m merely pushing back against those who chortle at protesters who didn’t vote as if that fact somehow delegitimizes their complaints.

It’s also worth noting that most of the protests against Trump’s victory have been peaceful and hopefully will continue to be that way.

Destroying property and hurting people is not the way to register a complaint or to effect change. Still, that doesn’t meant that voting is the exclusive way to do those things.

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