It’s very disconcerting to be barraged with negative news every single day, and to feel so powerless. But our country offers us the chance to make it different: every citizen has a voice in the nation’s narrative, even when we feel helpless.
The US Census Bureau reported that in 2008 only 64 percent of all registered voters actually voted. That doesn’t seem too bad, until you realize that only 72 percent of America is even registered to vote. In reality, only 45 percent of America is voting in these elections, even though they determine the fate of our country.
The whole purpose of democracy is for every person to have a say in what goes on.
The only way to preserve our government’s representation “of the people, by the people, for the people”—which President Abraham Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address in 1863—is for “the people” to participate in the election of our representatives. That means every one of us.
Voting is a privilege we can’t take for granted.
Voting is not an every-four-year event when the excitement of a presidential election stirs our interest. The down ballot (with lower-profile political candidates not as popular and prominent as presidential choices) and “off-year” elections are just as important . . . those decisions govern everything local from education to public safety. They’re issues that have an everyday impact on our lives and deserve our attention.
Every vote counts
Many young people feel as though their vote doesn’t count and use this as the reason for not participating in elections. Millennials reported feeling especially disillusioned by both presidential candidates before the election in 2016, and many chose to sit out the election altogether as a result. 100 million people who had the legal right to vote that year simply decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Your vote always matters.
If you think that just one vote in a sea of millions can’t make much of a difference, you’re wrong. Consider some of the closest elections in U.S. history:
- Bush won Florida by 0.009 percent of the votes cast in the state, or 537 votes. Had 600 more pro-Gore voters gone to the polls in Florida that November, there may have been an entirely different president from 2000–2008.
- Minnesota senator Al Franken won by just 312 votes in 2009.
- In 2016, Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, but the margin of victory for Donald Trump in the swing states that he won was less than 1 percent.
In an America perhaps divided more than ever, every vote counts, Not just for the presidential candidate, but for all the seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the governorships. Even if you’re in a state where it’s likely that one of the two major presidential candidates will win because it’s a ‘safe state’ (a state that almost always votes a certain way), there are other down-ballot races that are not necessarily safe and predictable. Your vote makes a huge difference.
A Portland State University study found that less than 15 percent of eligible voters were turning out to vote for mayors, council members, and other local offices. Low turnout means that important local issues are determined by a limited group of voters, making a single vote even more meaningful.
While young people make up a large portion of the voting-eligible population, they’re much less likely than those who are older to get out and vote. Millennials represented nearly 50 percent of the entire voter population in the 2016 presidential election but only 19 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cast their ballot versus 49 percent of people aged 45 to 64 who voted.
Young voters notoriously neglect the importance of voting, but their voice is an important one—on both sides of the aisle. Key issues in every election increasingly relate to the concerns of students and professionals between the ages of 18 and 29, making it essential for members in that age group to educate themselves on political issues and take to the polls.
For many millennials, adulthood brings many new challenges, like college, marriage, buying a house, paying for your own health insurance, and/or starting a business, all of which could radically change your perspective on political issues. While you can’t predict who or where you’ll be in four years, you can be sure the political officials elected into office and the policies they implement will impact your life in the coming months and years.
Millennials have been credited with the decisive vote in the 2012 election of Barack Obama for a second term as president; Obama won 67 percent of the national youth vote in crucial states such as Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (over his opponent Mitt Romney).
If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain about anything the government does. The situation won’t be changed by sitting idle and allowing others to make major political decisions.
Voting turnout gaps limit our ability for a real democracy—one that truly represents our country
Our democracy has far too many missing voices, particularly among those who are already less advantaged due to racial and class barriers in our society.
By excluding so many eligible voters, our election systems do a very poor job of giving voice to the full diversity of viewpoints in our electorate. The viewpoints of lower-voting populations are almost entirely ignored in elections and policy making, in no small part because they’re missing at the polls.
Clearly—and urgently—we need to close the voting gaps to ensure greater balance in electoral and policy outcomes so all Americans (not just white Americans) enjoy the fruits of democracy.
The freedom to vote is America’s most valuable and hard-won right. The United States Constitution, as originally written, established how the new country would vote but did not define specifically who could or could not vote.
In the early years of our country, only white landowners could vote. It was not until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 that black men were allowed to vote. But even then, many would-be voters faced artificial hurdles like poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures meant to discourage them from exercising their right to vote.
These hurdles would exist until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964—which eliminated the poll tax—and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—which ended Jim Crow laws.
Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the long efforts of the women’s suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment.
With amendments removing the previous barriers to voting (particularly sex and race), theoretically all American citizens over the age of 21 could vote by the mid 1960s. Later, in 1971, the American voting age was lowered to 18, building on the idea that if a person was old enough to serve their country in the military, they should have the right to vote.
While no longer explicitly excluded, voter suppression is still a problem in many parts of the country, as some politicians try to win reelection by limiting the number of specific populations of voters (such as African Americans).
We cannot waste this hard-won privilege
Voting in the 2020 election is especially tricky. Social distancing rules—coupled with an anticipated high turnout of voters (as seen in the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 primary elections)—will make poll lines much longer. Millions of people, some for the first time, will vote by mail, and not every state is equipped to handle the projected volume of absentee ballots.
To guarantee that your vote counts, you’ll have to plan more than usual. First, look to your state’s website for voting information and instructions for how to register to vote—and do it now.
A few tips:
- Officials expect postal delays may occur again, so request your ballot as soon as possible.
- Find out where your local ballot drop boxes are located (they’re locked boxes) and return your ballot there if you can.
- Fill in your ballot very carefully. Be sure to sign your ballot, and do so legibly. A lot of ballots aren’t counted because they are unsigned or the signature looks wrong. Don’t forget the proper envelope or a witness signature where it’s necessary. If you make a mistake, such as the wrong zip code or omitting an apartment number, your ballot might not be counted.
- If you’re mailing your ballot, send it in as early as possible. An NPR analysis found that within the 2020 primary elections held so far “at least 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots were rejected because they arrived past the deadline, often through no fault of the voter.”
- Allow a lot of extra time if you are voting in person. If your state has early in-person voting, take advantage of it in order to prevent long lines on election day on November 3.
- And be sure to complete your census to give your local community the accurate funding and electorate counts.
You can personally make America a stronger country—simply by voting.
Highlight of the Week: The power of the youth vote
Youth voters who want to inspire change need to show their support for the candidates they feel best represent their needs.
No one else is going to vote in the interest of young people . . . except young people. The youth of America have the power to make decisions that affect the country.
Challenge of the Week: Get involved and work to get more people to vote
There are many ways to get involved and help voter turnout.
I’m working with a few nonprofits, such as Rockthevote.org and moveon.org, to dial for voters and answer questions for citizens seeking answers. By volunteering I am helping voters find their polling place, discover how to check if they’re registered, know how to apply for absentee ballots and to confirm mail-in deadlines, and learn all their voting options.
Use your social media to remind everyone to vote and give them this link to confirm they’re registered (laws regarding the registration process vary by state).
Think about people you know that may need information on getting information on Absentee and early voting. Think about any youth and college kids that may need prodding to get registered at their college location or to get an absentee ballot.
You can also volunteer to be a poll worker, which is needed more this year than any other. Here are more ways to help.
And most importantly, make a plan with lots of extra time to vote yourself!
Kendall Webb, Executive Director