Despite “get out the vote” efforts by civic groups, nonprofit organizations, religious institutions and political parties, millions of registered voters in towns and cities across America won’t bother to vote tomorrow, Election Day 2015. Some will tell you that they are just too busy. Many will tell you that they see no value in voting in an election that is so hyper-local.
Still others will say their individual vote doesn’t matter. How can you feel otherwise when corporations funding super PACS are people, and billionaires Sheldon and Miriam Adelson[i] gave more to shape the 2012 federal elections than all the combined contributions from residents in 12 states, right?
According to Nonprofit VOTE, just over 33% of the U.S. voting age population bothered to cast their ballot in 2014. While voting is universally low, the organization found that “nonvoters” are disproportionately lower-income, younger, and new citizens – demographics that represent large portions of my extended family.
I’ve had countless discussions – actually I’m being polite – countless arguments with family members and friends about the value of voting. Many feel that the “deck is stacked” and the votes of low-income, working-class and increasingly professional middle-class people count for little, as dark money (campaign funds that do not publicly disclose donors) influences even local elections. For example, a super PAC started by education activist Michelle Rhee outspent the actual candidates to help people who share her views on school testing and accountability gain seats on the Burbank, Calif., School Board.
Why I Think Voting Matters
First, and this is the “don’t-trust-the-man” Denise blogging here, if the votes of less class-advantaged people don’t count, why are so many states trying to block our vote? According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, state lawmakers across the country introduced at least 180 restrictive voting bills in 41 states between 2010 and the 2012 presidential election and more since. The result? There will be new voting restrictions in place in 21 states since the 2010 midterm election. In 15 states, these restrictions will be in effect for the first time in a presidential election in 2016.
At the both the national and level, yes, our elected officials have to bow and scrape to the wealthy to ensure that they have enough money to investigate if they should even consider a run for office. However, today’s technology allows you to give a $3 online campaign donation, while coordinating your policy positions with countless others through national nonprofits.
And if you don’t think that it makes a difference who is elected at the state and national level, talk to the plethora of families whose lives were instantly made better by Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in the 5–4 decision held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. My point? The president nominates justices, and the Congress must approve the nominees.
Talk to the families first in Massachusetts and then in the nation about the benefits of affordable health care. Talk to the women in New Hampshire, Utah, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, who depend on Planned Parenthood for health care services, what difference elected officials are making in their life.
I know from personal experience, that a few votes can make a difference in local elections also – and in local policy. Just last week, a new member of our local Town Meeting successfully advocated with the governing body for significant changes to policies affecting veterans in our community.
Not the Only Answer …
Of course, I’m no Pollyanna. I do not believe that voting alone will ensure democracy. I believe in community action – and agitation. I believe in civil action legislation for the deprivation of rights. I believe in using traditional media and making your own media to change the public discourse on issues.
However, I know from my friends at Nonprofit VOTE that disenfranchised nonvoters favor government jobs programs by a margin of 10 points over those who do vote. They favor increasing the minimum wage by a margin of eight points. When these folks don’t vote, progressive policies that support people with fewer class advantages are destined to remain “off the table.”
… But One Answer
For me Civil Rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis best sums up the should-I-shouldn’t-I vote debate:
The history of the right to vote in America is a history of conflict, of struggling for the right to vote. Many people died trying to protect that right. I was beaten, and jailed because I stood up for it… The vote is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society. We must not allow the power of the vote to be neutralized. We must never go back.