Author, Journalist, Filmmaker

Why vote, anyway?

I’ve heard all the excuses for failing to vote, and I don’t buy any of them.
“I just don’t have the time.” “None of the candidates engage my feelings or imagination.” “Politicians are all the same – they say what you want to hear, but after they’re elected, they do what they want anyway.” “Oops, I forgot to register.” “The whole system is corrupt and I don’t want to endorse that with my participation.” “I only vote in presidential elections.” “The special interests, the corporations and unions and political action committees, far outweigh any effect my vote can have.” “Any way you look at it, you lose.” “How much is my one little vote worth, really?”

I don’t care whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, Anarchist, Tea Party, or no party. This is about something far more basic and important than politics. It’s about whether you vote at all.

Sure, everybody knows our political system stinks. It has been thoroughly corrupted by several unholy influences. Bad enough that money has always bought votes, which will only get worse now that the Supreme Court has endorsed the “free speech” rights of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of cash to “support” politicians with campaign contributions. Bad enough that state legislatures and especially the Congress of the United States should be renamed “Corporate America, Customer Service Division.” None of this lets you and me, the voter, off the hook. In fact, it’s a powerful reason for never failing to do your patriotic duty and cast a ballot. It’s also a way you can say you refuse to be bought, or to buy into fear-mongering advocacy ads financed by anonymous donors with selfish motives.

One of the dumbest things we do in this culture is treat politicians like pampered celebrities instead of public servants, stressing that word servant. Too many of them seem to regard holding public office as just another line on their resume. Demands that they actually do something for the public are often met with blank, uncomprehending stares – as if we, the people, somehow don’t “get it.” A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” starts at home. The things that affect our lives most directly—schools, roads, housing, hospitals—are determined at the local level, not in Washington DC.

If we, as citizens, don’t take ourselves seriously, why should the people who get elected?

We’ve heard the phrase “American exceptionalism” spoken a lot in the last ten years. Too often it is used to mean, “There are rules that govern the way nations behave, and all nations must obey those rules – except America, because we are special.” Well, we are special, but not like that.

What made America exceptional in the history of nations was the recognition that individuals had unalienable rights and that governments were created to secure those rights. Fundamental to a free country was every individual’s right to go to the polls on Election Day and vote for somebody they thought would use political power for the common good. It wasn’t pure democracy, it was a constitutional republic, a system that since Sept. 11, 2001 we have all but surrendered – in the belief it would make us safe from terrorism – in favor of a police surveillance state under which our privacy, rights to free speech, assembly, and to face our accusers have all been stripped away. Add that to the domination of our government by moneyed and powerful interests, and you begin to wonder exactly what rights are left for the Patriot Act to protect.

I am not straying from the point – this is the point. We get exactly the country we ask for each time we go, or don’t go, to the polls. When we don’t vote, we make it easier for low quality political talent – demagogues, emotional manipulators, fear mongers, outright liars – to get elected, because the lower the turnout, the fewer votes they need to win.
Against all of this, how do we citizens fight back?

The vote is the fundamental way that we the people express our political will. An active, engaged, committed electorate and high voter turnouts are the best possible signs of a healthy, vibrant citizenry that respects itself, takes its duty to participate in its destiny seriously, and holds accountable those who don’t serve the common good by booting them out of office.

Here’s what I would like to see. Everyone should be registered and eligible to vote on their 18th birthday whether they fill out the paperwork or not. It should be as easy as possible for everyone eligible to vote. Election Day should be on a weekend, even, God forbid, on a Sunday. At the very least, Election Day Tuesday should be a national holiday and paid day off just as precious as the holidays we reserve for loafing and department store sales. The polls should be staffed with well-trained and conscientious people. The election machinery should be designed for ease of use and should be impossible to tamper with. And anybody convicted of the heinous crime of tampering with, stealing, or corrupting an election should go to prison for a long stretch of breaking big rocks into little ones.

Above all, election campaigns should be short, and publicly financed so that all candidates have to compete on the basis of their ideas, not their ability to pummel their opponent with an avalanche of expensive advertising, and so that after Election Day, those elected are loyal to the people, not the backroom and under-the-table characters who financed their campaigns. This would also restore the role of the media as interpreters and reporters of political campaigns instead of serving only as advertising platforms, because even if everyone votes, unless voters are informed, elections will still be determined by who has the most, and most frightening, ads.

When I was a young reporter, covering Election Day was my favorite assignment. It wasn’t the racing from town to town, collecting the results, button-holing people outside the polls for interviews, then heading back to a news bureau filled with cigarette smoke and clacking typewriters, but a powerful sense of something mysterious and profound taking place, a nation of free men and women exercising their sacred right to control their own affairs, invisible that night, but absolutely important in its capacity to shape the destiny of a town, a state, or a nation the following day. For one night, the future was no longer in the hands of the moneyed and powerful, it was in the hands of the people, and for better or worse, the people were having their say.

If none of this sways you, if none of this persuades you of how absolutely vital your one little vote is and of your duty to get to the polls and make your voice heard, maybe this will. From Valley Forge, to the Battle of New Orleans, to Gettysburg, through the horrors of the trenches of World War I and the struggle against tyranny in World War II, and yes, even in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, men and women of this country have fought and suffered and bled and died to preserve and protect our right to walk into a little curtained booth once a year to cast a vote in furtherance of keeping this country a land of free men and women. To fail to vote, whatever your excuse, is to profane their devotion and to betray their sacrifice.

It’s all too easy to take for granted what we’ve been given in this country, and that’s the best way I know of to lose it all. We still have the right to vote. Use it, while you still can.


The Hudson Reporter  October 27, 2010