For starters, I assume that people who make this statement exempt certain people, to wit:
- Children who are not old enough to vote.
- Someone who gets in some sort of accident on the way to the polls.
- Military commanders who, as a matter of conscience and to remain "apolitical" choose not to vote.
- Any complaint that has nothing to do with government.
He needn't have been so hypothetical. As most people who follow politics know, the Illinois governor (re)elected in 2006 disgraced his office by, apparently and among other things, trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder. I suppose if someone who had not voted in 2006 made the complaint, this talk show host would have discounted that complaint. So far, so good. But the fact that the one who made the complaint hadn't voted in 2006 has nothing to do with whether Blagojevich tried to sell the senate seat and says nothing about whether his attempt to do so was a bad or illegal thing. The truth or falsity of the governor's actions, and the goodness/badness or legality/illegality of those actions, has nothing to do with whether the one making the complaint voted.
I think the talk show host would probably respond that, well, yes, he would exempt people who are blowing whistles or making fact-based claims, but wouldn't abide complaints about "politicians these days" from people who don't vote. In my observation, however, most of the time that people complain about "politicians these days," with election seasons excepted, they are doing so in the context of a certain policy debate, such as (choose your poison) the Iraq war, Cap and Trade, Health Insurance Reform. And the complaints here are not the general "politicians these days don't care about people like me"; they are "politicians favor and are enacting policy x but they neglect the very legitimate concerns of people like me."
The most charitable construction to put on the "if you don't vote, don't complain" aphorism is that the act of voting is the most minimal forms of political participation and puts the voter among the community of people who are making the basic decisions in a democratic republic such as we live in. It is, in that respect, the "least we can do" is participate in the electoral process and be part of the civil society that puts a check on governmental power and expresses the voices and concerns of "the people."
Fair enough, and this construction has a certain appeal. And that is probably one reason why I usually chose to vote in city and national elections, although I usually do not vote in the primaries. (In Colorado, at least when I lived there, one had to be registered with a party to vote in its primary, I was not. Now in Illinois, one needn't register to vote in the primary, so I have less of an excuse.)
But not voting does not preclude participating in other ways. And the complainer, by complaining, is participating, and usually more vocally, than if all he or she did vote. If one writes a letter to one's congressperson, that is a more direct form of participation (although I suspect a letter from someone who the record shows has voted might carry more weight.....who knows? I don't.)
I'm not saying, as I used to say by implication (click here and here and here for examples), that voting is an entirely worthless exercise. And I think one should vote in the same way that one should [insert logically appropriate, but preferably also witty and folksy, analogy here]. But voting is not the summum bonum of all things good in a person qua member of civil/civic society.