Long time ago, like in 2012, I blogged “Should We Be Required to Vote?” My answer was no. It’s still no.
At the end of that blog post I wrote “People fight hard and even die for the right to vote, but all too often once we’ve got it, voting doesn’t seem worth the effort. What’s going on?”
Since early 2016 I’ve been more involved in electoral politics than ever before. That year I actively campaigned for Dylan Fernandes, who is now our state representative (and an excellent one he’s turned out to be), and Julian Cyr, who is now our state senator (ditto).
This, coupled with the disastrous results of the presidential election, prompted me to not only register as a Democrat — Massachusetts is an open-primary state, which means that if you’re unenrolled in any party you can take any party’s ballot in primary elections — but become involved in Democratic party politics. (My blog post about that has been gestating for several months. I will finish it soon, I promise.)
Just this year I’ve collected nomination signatures for several candidates, attended the state Democratic convention as a delegate, staffed a voter-registration table, and written something like 850 Postcards to Voters. There’s nothing like hands-on experience to teach you what you don’t know, so I’ve picked up a few insights and even answers to my 2012 question “What’s going on?” Why do so many USians not vote?
First, a couple of observations, gleaned from people across the country who are old hands at this stuff:
- GOTV (Get Out the Vote) efforts are a major part of political campaigns. Getting voters (1) registered, and (2) to the polls absorbs serious time, energy, and ingenuity.
- Republicans turn out for primaries and special elections. Democrats? Not so much.
What this says to me is that many of those who do vote aren’t in the habit of doing so. For sure some people do show up for every election, but when primary turnouts are regularly under 30 percent of registered voters, it’s clear that many people don’t. This is true even in my town of West Tisbury and on Martha’s Vineyard in general, where polling places are accessible, lines are non-existent, and no one’s out there trying to intimidate voters.
Look at what Alabama voters, especially African-American voters, had to put up with in order to cast their ballots for Doug Jones in last December’s special election: long — hours-long — lines at the polls, polling places that were hard to reach by public transportation, the intimidating presence of police officers . . . The GOTV efforts of the Jones campaign and its allies were herculean — and they paid off.
“Your vote matters” sounds like hyperbole, doesn’t it? When you look at the votes cast in a congressional race, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, never mind the tens of millions of votes cast in a presidential election, it’s hard to imagine that one more or less could make a difference, BUT . . .
Doug Jones won his U.S. Senate seat by just under 22,000 votes, a rather small margin for a statewide race. Conor Lamb won his special election for Congress from Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District (known to us political wonks as “PA-18”) by 755 votes. That’s out of 227,449 total votes cast. In many of the state legislative races I’ve written postcards for, the margin of victory was been in the low hundreds. Thanks to the Electoral College, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was decided by a few thousand votes in each of several swing states.
Still, it requires faith to believe that “your vote matters,” and matters enough to make you go out of your way to do it. When the evidence all around you suggests that voting doesn’t matter, it’s hard to keep the faith.
As I noted in my 2012 blog post, making voting compulsory is “a superficial fix for a much deeper challenge” — and the challenge is to make voting matter. One sensible reason for not voting is that our “electoral options often boil down to Doritos vs. Pringles, McDonalds vs. Burger King.” In the wake of the disastrous 2016 election, thousands of people across the country have stepped up to expand those options by running for office themselves. Many thousands more have stepped up to help get those candidates elected.
Campaigning for Dylan and Julian in 2016 has made voting matter more to me, and not just because both of them won. Now I have a personal connection to both my state rep and my state senator that I didn’t have with any of their predecessors. They’re over here regularly, despite the challenges of representing a district that includes two islands (three, if you include Cuttyhunk, whose year-round population is about 20).
We’re lucky where I live: our elected representatives show up in person. U.S. senators and representatives don’t come round so often because their districts are so much larger, but they do come round. In other places people see their elected officials only at election time, if then. Small wonder that they believe voting doesn’t matter — in itself it often doesn’t.
Constituents have to hold their elected officials accountable, and turn them out if they prove unresponsive. And that means getting out the vote — persuading those who rarely if ever vote that they aren’t suckers if they act on faith and take time out to vote as if their vote matters, or might matter.
If you need more persuading, consider the efforts that the GOP has been putting into discouraging voters who aren’t likely to support them. They’re afraid of something. Maybe it’s us.