Column: You Need to Vote

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Today I would like to talk about -- regardless how you may vote -- why you should vote. In 2012, only half of eligible voters voted, placing the U.S. 31st out of the 35 OECD countries in turnout. In midterm elections, where Governors, Senators, and every house and state representative are elected, only 36% of voters voted. This attitude is particularly common among young people: less than 20% of young adults voted in the 2014 midterms. Many people I encounter at my school, even students majoring in politics, decline to participate in the political process, since one vote will not determine the course of an election.

“I am in deep blue New York,” a friend of mine explained, “my vote won’t count either way. It is simply a waste of time better spent.”

Except your vote can make a difference. Even if your presidential candidate has no hope of winning your state, your vote can make a difference in local issues, where one vote makes up a larger percentage of the whole. City ordinances, local propositions or district referendums on the ballot every election year determine how you interact with your government on a daily basis: they affect the quality of the roads you drive on, the cleanliness of your water and sanitation, the curricula and classroom sizes of local schools, the cost of opening up a small business, and community police practices among a host of other issues. Your local state legislator votes on statewide laws and determines redistricting. In many states, appointed justices on the courts of appeals and state Supreme Court, judges who cast a litany of decisions from civil rights to religious freedom, setting precedent on any issues you can think of, face reelection. Even your congressional elections are local enough that a few hundred votes, simply everyone who goes to your church or high school, can determine the election, and that will determine national policy.

Still, the skeptical may point out that in elections, local or otherwise, your vote does not count. Elections are rarely determined by one vote, and you not showing up to vote won’t change the outcome. The trouble with that argument is that so long as every vote is counted, your vote counts. Your vote does not change anything individually, but collectively, your vote, along with millions of other votes, can change the country. You cannot say your vote only matters if you are the tipping point: we do not tally everyone else’s ballots, see if there is a tie, and then wait for you to decide that your vote actually will make a difference. That is not how democratic change works. Democratic change requires a myriad of individuals making a simultaneous decision to vote for something, and that decision is not less legitimate just because it was collective.

The Declaration of Independence would have still been a success even if one founder chose not to sign it, and segregation still would have ended if one marcher in Selma stayed home. But if a majority of people exercised that same judgement of calculated indifference, then no change would have occurred. Democracy will survive with an individual not voting, but democracy would begin to break down if everyone chose not to vote. There is egoism embedded in the notion that you should only take the time to vote if you are the deciding vote. You’re allowing yourself to be the exception to the rule, to exercise civic irresponsibility, even while benefiting from a system that only works by others exercising the responsibility you choose to forsake.

It takes another degree of entitlement not to vote. It is easy not to vote if you are a college student, with an air conditioned classroom, a degree in short time, and a dorm to return to at night. Bad policies being enacted will not affect you that much. You may go so far as to say that, compared to an hour of free time, your vote doesn’t count for much. But your vote counts if you are a family with an autistic son, who needs the county to keep funding special needs programs. Your vote counts if you are a gay couple in a town considering passing ‘religious liberty’ laws allowing businesses to fire people because they’re gay. For those who are poor or oppressed, who do not have the money to influence elections, and are generally considered powerless, voting makes them as powerful as any citizen in their democracy. Voting counts for them, for the people democracy often leaves behind, for the people who don’t always reap the blessings of liberty. Yet there are others who benefit from democracy daily who think they are too good to vote.

Even if you are still convinced that your vote doesn’t count, consider this: by not voting, what do you prove or gain? Will you give up a right millions of people long to have, one that women in Afghanistan have been shot for exercising, just so you can have a free hour? I am certain you will use that hour at some point during the next four years to complain about your government. Why not use that hour on Election Day to try to shape your government instead? For two-hundred forty years, our nation has been committed to self-government. The fact that one person’s vote doesn’t single-handedly determine our country’s course is not a weakness of our system but a strength. Our strength comes from having a vast, diverse people, each with their own individual voice and vote, coming together to determine how they ought to be governed. That is the kind of government that soldiers in fields near Gettysburg and marchers on a bridge in Selma considered worth bleeding for. You can let democracy pass you by, or you can assume your birthright this November and help shape your government. Please, vote.