The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Problem with Voting Ads

Paper origami people standing in a line with a ballot box labeled "VOTE" in the foreground.

As the 2024 election draws closer, one particularly noxious part of the ritual process has started to resurface: the supposedly nonpartisan “get out the vote” message. I’m not talking about voter information resources like Vote.org – I’m talking about the little pop-ups you get on social media, or celebrity-studded advertisements, reminding you that “hey, you really should go vote!”

I’m not disparaging this campaign because it is motivated by callous politicians who want to increase the turnout of their base, rather than the turnout of all voters. It almost certainly is, but this would be a relatively small offense when it comes to political operatives hijacking civic ideals for partisan gain.

I’m also not saying this because I have a problem with social media companies, or corporations in general, pushing this message. I absolutely do (Spotify, Facebook, and NBC should not be our civic stewards), but if I thought these sorts of campaigns were good, I suppose it would be beneficial for the entities that effectively control the social narrative to be getting the word out.

No, I dislike these campaigns because of their very purpose: to “nudge” people who weren’t going to vote to get up off their couch and head to the polls. This message, particularly when it’s broadcasted in the days and weeks before an election, is actively harmful and morally incorrect.

Who are the people these campaigns are targeting? Is it the political junkie, constantly refreshing Twitter to get an update on the progress of their favorite piece of legislation or reports from today’s meeting of the House Oversight Committee? Certainly not, those people are engaged in the political process of our nation — they can generally be counted on to vote, and if they don’t, it’s certainly not out of a lack of awareness.

Not everyone loves to passionately follow the DC circus, of course, but there are countless Americans who still follow the news enough to have an intelligent — or at least intelligible — position on key policies, or who feel strongly about a certain federal, state, or local candidate, or who simply manage to still place some importance on the civic foundations of the nation they reside in. They get up and vote — maybe not in every election, but certainly in the big federal ones, and that’s what most of these campaigns concentrate on, anyways. 

These campaigns also aren’t targeting the principled independent, the conscientious objector who makes a deliberate decision to withhold their vote in response to what they see as two equally odious options. Say what you want about the merits of choosing to not vote, but it is indeed a choice — and if it’s a well-considered decision, it seems unlikely that some Corporate Memphis graphics on a sponsored Instagram post are going to sway them in the opposite direction.

Who does that leave us with? Who are these campaigns working so hard to sway? The easy answer might be “those who weren’t going to vote,” but as we said above, there are plenty of people who actively choose not to vote. The more precise answer is: those who were not, for whatever reason, going to vote, and could be swayed to vote by an advertisement.

Why would the type of person who is nudged into participating in electoral politics by a celebrity coming on TV between halves of a football game or an anonymous dancer on TikTok not vote? Are they victims who have been robbed of their voice? Are they the untapped goldmine of new ideas that can unleash transformative change upon our nation?

Or could they just not be bothered to give a shit?

Untold millions of people have made immense sacrifices to secure the political rights we hold today, the right to vote chief among them. Our own nation was born out of a violent struggle by people who pledged, and often lost, their lives to the idea of a government founded on representation. Its first iteration was far from flawless, and that’s why the next 200 years of our history has been defined by a constant struggle to work towards a fully representative democracy. Voting as an institution has been sanctified in the blood of revolutionaries, protestors, patriots, and soldiers who have paid the ultimate price so that their descendants could live under a government that allowed them to voice their opinions. To at least consciously engage with, if not participate in, that system ought to be considered the obligation of anyone fortunate enough to live in the aftermath of that long, bloody process.

We should undoubtedly increase the role of civics in our school system. The number of people who are ignorant of the details of how our government actually functions, and how it ought to function, is startlingly high, and that is our collective responsibility to remedy. That said, I refuse to believe that there are large numbers of people in this country who are unaware that elections are regularly held to decide who will lead our country. 

Similarly, I am completely for the reform of our polling process, which even in the best of times is often conducted in dingy, dank gymnasiums and administered by retirees on a random winter’s Tuesday. For those who want to vote, the process should be simple, pleasant, and efficient. That said, I refuse to believe that any adult capable of functioning in modern society is incapable of figuring out how to vote if they judge it important enough to dedicate moderate cognitive energy towards. 

You don’t need to eat and breathe politics to be worthy of voting — in fact, that’s not a healthy habit at all. People who follow politics as if it were a sporting event tend not to be considerate, sober voters, and often overlook that local elected officials can have the greatest influence on their everyday lives. The ideal voter is someone who spends most of their time working, learning, socializing, and volunteering in their communities, and who is informed about but not obsessed with national issues. 

However, that’s not the topic of this article – if you’re passionate about democracy and are intrinsically motivated to go to the polls, then go for it. What I’m trying to say here is not that people with different opinions, interests, or lifestyles from me should not be voting.

But what I am saying is that — if you are the type of person who needs to be reminded by a stupid little pop-up on your phone to exercise the relatively small responsibility that comes with the tremendous political liberties that you enjoy, liberties that would be the envy of 99.9% of any human to have ever lived, liberties that countless people have fought and died over, liberties that are the foundation of our republic — you probably shouldn’t be voting.

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