Why Voting Always Matters
And my response to the 88 million non-voting Americans whose sorry excuses don't cut it
Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.
“Fifty percent of people won't vote, and 50 percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same 50 percent.” — Gore Vidal
I have an abiding tradition, something I’ve been doing on the first Tuesday of November every election year since 1988 (Bush I v. Dukakis). I go to my neighborhood polling station, and, as I’m waiting, I call my friend Judith. We don’t talk that much these days, but she knows that come Election Day, she’s going to hear from me.
We compare notes about our fellow Americans standing in line — with kids, briefcases and earnest expressions — sometimes waiting an hour just to cast their votes. And we get a little weepy.
(Note from FactCheck.org: In the days before cell phones, the calls were made after the fact, from home or the office.)
I’m a real geek when it comes to voting. When I moved to New York City after college (by way of a year and a half in Europe), one of the very first things I did was register to vote. Two months after arriving, I cast my third vote ever (for Gov. Cuomo I).
The only major vote I missed wasn’t my fault. It was 2004, and I knew I was going to be out of the country for a month, including Election Day. So I ordered an absentee ballot, but it got lost in the mail, and I never got to cast my vote. (What a different world it was just eight years ago.) And even though I knew, rationally, that my one little vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome, I was bummed about it for the next four years.
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One Person, One Vote
Last night I was at an election party, and one friend shared, horrified, that her 23-year-old son was not going to vote. His rationale: “New York is a blue state, and my vote won’t make a difference.” Technically, that’s true. In typical fashion, the Empire State voted overwhelmingly Democrat (about 62.7 percent). But like the other approximately 88 million no-show eligible voters this year, he’s missing the point.
Voting isn’t something we do because we think we’re going to win or because we’re megalomaniacal enough to believe our vote is going to alter the outcome. Voting is the hallmark of democracy — a right that people have fought and died for, a right that people are still fighting for today in the real battleground places.
Even though our country was founded on the principles of democracy, as the whole world knows, the founders didn’t get it right out of the gate. Back in the day, only rich (land-owning) white dudes had the privilege of selecting our elected officials, and, no surprise here, they always voted in rich white dudes.
Blacks couldn’t vote until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 — and that right was actively thwarted through Jim Crow laws until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 (although my son would argue that there are still de facto Jim Crow barriers against voting today).
And while women make up roughly half the nation’s population, we haven’t had the vote for a full century yet. Around the world, there are still millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people who don’t get to participate in their national elections.
The Truth About Voting
According to a number of articles, including a piece in USA Today from August, voting delinquents offer the same lame excuses. Personally, I think they range from ignorant to pathetic, but that’s just me. To each item on the short list of cop-outs people actually give for taking a pass on the most precious liberty of all, I offer a counterargument. So next time someone tells you one vote doesn’t count, hit him or her with this.
- I’m too busy. Right — doing things you enjoy or making money to create the life you want because you live in a free country. If you were a political prisoner or worked 12 hours a day in a sweatshop in a nation where you couldn’t vote and were suddenly offered the chance to do so, something tells me you’d find the time.
- My vote doesn’t matter. If everyone believed that and no one showed up to vote, they’d be right. “Use it or lose it” applies here. Don’t assume others are going to do your job for you. This is your civic duty.
- I’m too old/sick. Tell that to the 90-something woman we saw at the polls who had to be held up by a younger person — and wouldn’t accept the offer to jump up in line.
- I don’t like either candidate or the issues. It’s not the Mr. Congeniality contest. And like ’em or not, these are the issues of the day: budget, health care, education, freedom of choice, tolerance, cooperation. What do you care about?
- I forgot. Really? This election began almost two years ago. Where have you been, under a rock in Afghanistan? Coincidentally, thousands of American troops are there too — and most of them remembered to vote.
- It wasn’t convenient. I’m sure the people in New Jersey and on Staten Island and Long Island who’ve been without power, heat or gas (and maybe a home) for more than a week but managed to vote would feel real sorry for you.
The occupants of the White House and Congress have been determined for the next four years, but the good news about America is, you'll get opportunity after opportunity to be part of this process. I hope that next time you have the exquisite privilege to stand up and be counted, you'll remember that your vote really does count.