Change the Story, Change the Future: PLEASE VOTE
I’ve just checked my voting record and listed are all the times I voted. Also, glaringly, there is that time when I didn’t. There were reasons why — I was traveling, I was moving, blah blah blah — but mostly the time just passed by. And that’s how I’m again reminded: the obligations of American citizenship are a full-time job, but we all fall down on the job sometimes. We all get busy, or wait for the pamphlet for further context because we think we don’t know enough to weigh in. (More on that later.)
I also know it’s hard for people to feel engaged in politics when they believe no one in power cares about — or even sees — the concerns that shape and circumscribe their lives. When that’s the case, it’s easy to slide into apathy, to meet indifference with indifference. In the 2016 elections, 4 in 10 eligible Americans failed to vote; even worse, according to an NPR report from last month, in the last two midterm elections just 40 percent of eligible voters found their way to the polls.
I get that feeling, and sometimes I silently say it in my head. Why bother using my voice if no one’s going to listen to it? What’s the point of reserving a whole Tuesday in November for the hundreds of millions of registered voters in this country to scream into the void, one by one?
But here’s the thing: we aren’t screaming into the void one by one. If we stand shoulder to shoulder with one another and raise our voices together, we can be heard. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true: voting matters.
Now, let me be clear: here in the U.S., involuntary disenfranchisement isn’t just a relic from the history books. On the contrary, especially since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, voter suppression has been alive and well in states across the nation. Just this past week, we learned that the Georgia Secretary of State (who is also the Republican candidate for governor) is allegedly purging more than 50,000 mostly black voters from the rolls, and the Supreme Court upheld a North Dakota law that will bar thousands of Native Americans from the polls.
These are just this week’s examples, but the point is this: many states are doing their best to keep people from voting — especially young people, people of color, and lower-income people. They are eliminating early voting, closing poll sites in poor and minority communities and on college campuses, and removing registered voters from the rolls. My advice? Check your status now at https://www.vote.org/am-i-registered-to-vote/.
I’m telling you all this because I know we can’t encourage people to vote without reckoning, squarely, with all the reasons why they might not be able to. Telling people to go and vote isn’t enough; we need to be sure everyone who has that right has it in practice — not just in theory.
That’s part of the reason why those of us who can vote, should: this year in particular, the right to vote itself is what’s at stake. That’s more obviously true in some places than others — in Florida, for instance, a ballot amendment seeks to overturn a Jim Crow-era law that disenfranchises people with felony convictions for life — but everywhere, it’s the people we elect who decide who gets to vote and, crucially, how much our votes will count. Democracy is on the ballot, plain and simple.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about why some young people in particular choose not to vote. (In the 2014 midterm, for instance, just 16 percent of eligible voters under 30 cast a ballot.) In June, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 28 percent of 18–29-year-olds were sure to vote in this year’s midterms, compared to half of Americans overall and 74 percent of seniors.
I’ve seen this ad a lot lately, and it’s really made me think. (Warning: it’s a bit profane, so may be NSFW or family viewing.)
What’s reflected here is a story, a brief that explains the apathy we think we see among young voters: they’re solipsistic, they’re self-involved, their noses are stuck in their smartphones. (The ad also features a narrative about older voters that may not be entirely fair, but that’s a blog for another day.) But lately we’ve also been reminded of a HuffPost/YouGov poll from 2014 that found Millennials were more than twice as likely as people over 45 to say that only well-informed people should vote. Many see voting as a privilege, not an obligation — a prize for the few who subscribe to the New York Times and have the time and energy to hang out on political Twitter all day.
This year, I’d like to see us stand up and tell a different story. “The cure to what ails American democracy is more American democracy,” the activist Ady Barkan wrote in The Nation last week. “Our problems are created by people and…we can only solve them with people power.” Barkan isn’t just talking about voting here; in fact, he’s urging us to become organizers, “heroes for our communities and future generations.” Still, I think the lesson here is one we all can learn, even if we’re not comfortable knocking on doors or signing petitions, even if we don’t have time to go to town-hall meetings, and even if we can’t explain every detail of the omnibus spending bill. Democracy is a living thing — and like any living thing, it won’t survive if we don’t take care of it. That’s clearer now than ever.
Yes, we should all be as informed as we can be, and we should take what time we can to read up on the issues that matter to us and our neighbors — but we should also remember that it’s our voices that matter, whether or not they’d qualify us for a spot on a CNN panel. As my father would say, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This year, let’s be different: let’s show up, let’s speak out, let’s show that we care about the future of this nation. Let’s get off the sidelines. Let’s change the narrative. When we do, we’ll change the future.
Read more posts from WE Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin here.