Last week’s general election was a surprising non-event for me. It was probably the first time since I was eligible to vote that I did not cast a ballot during a scheduled election. My non-participation was not due to forgetfulness or apathy, but because there was nothing and no one to vote for (or against) on the second Tuesday following the first Monday this November. Voters in very few precincts in Multnomah County received a ballot at all. It was such a strange and unbelievable experience I visited the County Elections Division web site twice to verify that I was left out intentionally. We do not have a television, and rarely listen to commercial radio, so any pre-election bickering and buildup was minimal. Still, I was well aware I was missing something and I struggled with the sensation that I was shirking my responsibility.
Last week was quite a different experience than last November’s general, presidential, election. The cacophony of the juvenile campaign blitz and the knowledge of my true influence in the confusing way that votes are acquired and tallied caught me feeling particularly cynical when an acquaintance remarked that there was no point in voting. At the moment I could not come up with a logical argument that would demonstrate to her that her vote really would have counted had she taken the time to cast a ballot. I was appalled with myself for accepting her comment. She was partly right, in that with just seven electoral college votes in a cloven two-party system it is difficult to justify to Oregonians that they have a meaningful role in selecting the president. In the moment the only counter argument I could find was that we did have other candidates and issues that required a vote. Local issues and candidates are compelling reasons to cast a ballot, but these reasons alone do not capture the mandate behind voter participation.
As easy as it is to gripe about the broken two-party system that is further crippled by the electoral college it is the system of governance under which I live, along with my apathetic colleague. Voter participation is required for our democracy, our government, to work at all, even if it is inefficient, imperfect, or ineffective. Refusing to put the time and energy into voting only exacerbates the problems of the U.S. democracy.
Governance is not like shopping where you can simply find another store if you are not satisfied with the customer service in the first store, or walk away altogether if you decide you do not need to make a purchase. There is almost no way to opt out, which would be self-defeating anyway. Giving up one government nearly always means selecting a different one by exchanging citizenship rights and privileges.
A dysfunctional democracy is superior to a non-participatory system of government. Participatory systems can be improved, but only if citizens take the time to educate themselves, cast ballots consistently and with wisdom, and actively communicate and participate in the governing process between elections. Living under a democratic governing structure requires a lot of work of citizens and residents. While there are no obligations or expectations of citizens explicitly enumerated in the Law of the Land, the Constitution can only be implemented if citizens universally assume the burden of active and educated participation. Making meaningful changes takes serious commitment and organization over and above just making things run, but it can be done.
Part of the reason there are problems with the current electoral system is the legacy of oppression that produced it. This history of forced disenfranchisement is not an excuse for voter apathy, though fear and terrorism may forever be images evoked by the ballot box for many. Prior to the universal suffrage amendments women, people of color and other disenfranchised citizens actively participated in politics to change the rules and structures that forbade their participation. To be sure, it was a place of privilege to have the time and resources to engage politically and civically. Regardless of social status, the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, and subsequent Voting Rights Act, were the result of a great deal of work by a range of activists who at times risked their lives to make allies with those in decision making positions, and to help those who resisted to see that continued oppression has negative consequences on the economy and the health of communities.
In my reflection of my friend’s reluctance to take the time to vote I also thought of our grandmothers. Our grandmothers were forbidden from voting, and yet were active and engaged in aggressive speaking tours, public protests, and unrelenting lobbying in the quest for the rights of full participation as citizens. More than 100 women were arrested for voting in the general election of 1872. Susan B. Anthony was taken to trial in a kangaroo court whose judge ordered the jury to convict her without discussion and to fine her $100. The men complied. Women endured hunger strikes, arrest, imprisonment, forced feedings and other abuses so that my friend and I could vote. We owe it to our grandmothers to put the energy and effort into voting, even in our most cynical moments when we are challenged to see much purpose in it.
Moreover, my friend also owes it to her community to vote, just as I owe it to her and to all my community. Democracy in the U.S. only works if we all show up at the polls. I trust that my neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues will take the time to learn the relevant information, understand what the outcome of a vote could mean, mark a ballot and return it to be counted. And I trust and hope that all of their neighbors, family, friends and colleagues also do the same, even when we disagree. If voter participation continues to erode we will no longer have a representative democracy; we will have an elitist sham cloaked in the name of democracy that threatens marginalized communities. If I do not care to stay informed, and if I do not bother to pick up the voters pamphlet, fill in the little circles, sign and submit my envelope, I let down my community.
Voting is peculiar in that, to be effective, it must be a private, solitary activity, but the primary reason to do it is for the common good. An important part of owning something is caring for it, though collective ownership can be tricky. Taking care of my community, my democracy, my government means casting an educated vote in elections, and participating in decision making processes in other ways as well. Failing to participate yields ownership to someone else. Far too many believers in our nation and our democracy have given their lives to advance a functional democracy. Refraining from electoral, political, and civic participation is to abdicate the obligations that accompany the rights of full citizenship that others have worked so hard to achieve.