When I was a child, Election Day was one of my favorite days of the year. My grandfather was a local elected official, so for the kids in our family, Election Day not only meant NO SCHOOL, it meant the excitement of holding signs while shouting out, “Vote for my Pop-pop!” It meant handing out campaign materials at polling stations. It meant getting to stay up late at election night parties, watching with baited breath as folks scurried in with boxes of precinct results, which were then written-up on long, papered walls. (Now that results are released online, election night parties are considerably less exciting.)
These days, I greet Election Day with far less enthusiasm.
I’ve grown up. I’ve awakened to the fact that we live in an imperfect world full of flawed people. And I’ve now (mostly through my work as a lobbyist) had a close-enough view of politics to know that its poor reputation is pretty well deserved. I’ve become frustrated with our political system and I’ve given up the idea that any candidate (except my grandfather, of course) can be a knight in shining armor.
But I still vote. I vote in every single election* and you should too. Here are some reasons why:
Vote As A Tribute
1.) People died so that we could live in a democracy. I know this argument can sound a little trite, a little tired. But it’s worth remembering. More than a million Americans have died in military conflicts since our country’s first fight for independence. They’ve fought so that we can have a say in our own governance, they’ve fought to keep our country together, to keep (or make) our people free, to protect us from threats. Each and every one of those casualties were real people, with loved ones and interests and struggles and hoped-for futures. We should not take their sacrifices for granted.
2.) People struggled for the vote. It took decades of hard work for women to gain the right to vote and decades more for (most) stumbling blocks for minorities to be removed. Those struggles shouldn’t be taken for granted either.
3.) Many still do not have the right to vote. Across the world today, billions of people are unable to make their voices heard through fair, secure elections. We shouldn’t pass on our own opportunities to vote when others would love to have them.
Vote To Make Whatever Difference You Can
4) Local elections matter. Though Congress and the presidency may dominate the news and even our political imaginations, our ballots are dominated by candidates and questions on the state and local levels. Which is appropriate, because that’s where most legislating is done. Roads, schools, law enforcement, social services – you name it – most of the decisions that impact our everyday lives are made at the state and local levels.
5) Margins in local elections can be really low. It’s simple math: your vote means more when fewer people are voting. With smaller electorates, state and local elections come down to the wire more often than federal elections do. And when they do, a handful of votes can make all the difference. Be part of the handful.
6) Assumptions can easily throw off a race. Are you assuming that the incumbent in your district is a shoe-in? Lots of other people are probably thinking the same thing. And when lots of people all make the same assumption… that’s when surprises happen. Maybe you like the guy, maybe you don’t – but when enough people stay home because they think he’s a sure thing, there’s a real chance that his opponent will catch him. Take challengers seriously. Don’t assume.
7) Your vote sends a message even when it’s not cast for the winner. Political types don’t just look to see who won a race. They look for how many people turned out, how close the margin was, how third-party candidates fared, etc. Maybe your guy won’t win. But if he does nearly as well as his opponent (or even just ‘better than expected’), that winner is more likely to tread carefully once he’s in office. Also, this election’s results may impact next elections’ prospects: a candidate who makes a good showing in one election cycle will likely have an easier time raising funds and attracting supporters in the next one.
8) National politicians start out as local politicians. If I haven’t pounded home the “local is important” message enough and you’re still not convinced that local politicians are worth paying much attention to, let me point out that national-level politicians come, almost exclusively, from the ranks of local politicians. Start paying attention to your local elected officials now, because your county councilman today might become your county executive tomorrow, your governor after that, and eventually your president. Have as much of an impact as you can on your local elected officials now, because they may influence your future in more ways than you can imagine.
Vote As A Legacy
9) Voting sends a message to your children that civic engagement is important. Maybe you live in a state (like I do) that’s completely dominated by one political party. Maybe you’ve rarely had one of your preferred candidates win an election. Maybe it feels like your vote has never mattered. But your children may find themselves in quite a different situation. They may go on to live in a different state, in a competitive district, where their vote makes a world of difference. Set the precedent now; help them to see voting as normal, as a responsibility and an honor.
Even if your children don’t end up in a district where they feel like they can make a difference, seeing you vote – in every election – will teach them something about stepping up. It will teach them something about doing their part, about trying to make a difference against all odds. That will serve them in more of life than just the voting booth.
So, Election Day is tomorrow – what do we do now?
If you’re registered to vote but you’re not sure where your polling station is, look up your local board of elections. (Google your state board of elections first. It can direct you to your county or other local board.) Their website should let you input your address to find your polling station and maybe even a sample ballot. Find one there, or pull out the one they mailed to you a couple of weeks ago. It’s probably under that stack of paper sitting on your desk or your kitchen counter. (You know you’ve got one somewhere!)
Once you’ve gotten the kids to bed tonight, open up that sucker and do some good, old-fashioned cramming. Google the candidates and take a look at their websites. (But don’t expect too much from them. Maybe you’ll find a few policy statements, but most candidate websites are pretty vague.) More importantly, consider which issues are most important to you. Abortion? The environment? Friendliness to business? Labor? Are you a Catholic who wants to know where candidates fall on issues of concern to the Church?** Whatever your priorities, look them up. Some groups make endorsements, others conduct candidate surveys. When you don’t know much about the candidates you’re asked to choose between, consult an organization you trust to see what it says about them.
Better yet, ask a knowledgeable friend. Do you have one of those – a friend or relative who’s been in your community forever and seems to know everyone? Do you trust their judgment? Call them up, ask them what they think. They may know more than any website or candidate survey could ever tell you.
If you can’t find any good information on the candidates of a particular race and they don’t list a party affiliation to give you some idea as to their political leanings, leave that one blank. Don’t resort to choosing the most attractive name or doing the good ol’ eeny, meeny, miney, moe. You might not have been able to do the good of choosing the worthier candidate, but at least you’ll not have done the bad of inadvertently choosing a wacko.
Mark up your sample ballot and stuff it into your purse for tomorrow. If your state has voter ID requirements, make sure you bring the required identification with you. (You can look that up on the board of elections website too.)
Tomorrow, make the time. Since this is a midterm election (i.e. no presidential candidates are on the ballot), you probably won’t have a very long wait. Just do it. And don’t forget to take your kids with you. Let them go in the voting booth and press a button or two. Let them insert that card or tap that touchscreen. Talk to them about what you’re doing and why it’s important.
Ready now? Good for you. Let me know how it turns out. Did you learn anything interesting while cramming? Did you meet some notable characters at the polls? What did your kids think of the process? I’d love to know!
*My sense of honesty and my perfectionism require me to admit that I did not actually vote in my little town’s last municipal election – but only because I was unaware that it was taking place until the last moment. And last moments, with three small children underfoot, are not good times in which to begin researching candidates.
**Many state Catholic Conferences (which are the voices of the bishops to their states’ legislatures) publish candidate surveys or other guides of use to Catholic voters. Below I include links to those in some of the states where I know I have readers. Are you in another state? Let me know and I’ll look to see what might be available from your state Catholic Conference (if you have one) and I’ll update this post with the link.