Electing to Matter
Dismissing the chance to vote ignores our history.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The other day, I received my official guide for the Feb. 5 primary, and thought back to the first time I ever voted.
I had turned 18 in time to participate in California’s presidential primary, and I couldn’t wait. I voted at the nearby elementary school where the poll workers seemed somewhat amused by my exuberance. My older brother voted a few hours later and reported back that the workers had noted my… er… enthusiasm to him. (“Boy, your sister sure was excited.”) It didn’t bother me. I got to vote. Be part of the democratic process. Make my voice heard.
All these years later, the thrill remains. Registering to vote is on my immediate to-do list when I move to a new city, and in my journalism career, I have moved a lot.
This will be the first time I have voted in California since I left in 1988. And the sense of importance I feel about the outcome of this presidential election matches my emotions at 18. There are other similarities, including war – then Vietnam, now Iraq, and a corrupt presidency – then Nixon, now Bush.
If you don’t vote, you lose complaining rights.
The truth is, the people we elect have a lot of say over our daily lives, so it does make a difference who we choose.
Elected officials decide how much money is spent for health care, education and national security. They determine taxes, which projects get funded and who sits on boards and commissions. They allocate money for streets, sewers and law enforcement. And they can take away what they give.
When people say they don’t vote or casually dismiss the opportunity, I just don’t get it. Call me a Pollyanna. Label me a cock-eyed optimist. I don’t care. This fundamental right separates our form of government from many others in the world. We have a say, and if we don’t like the results, we can vote the jerks out the next time. But if we don’t vote, our voice is silent.
Look at last week’s results in the Iowa caucuses – record turnouts of Democrats and Republicans gave Barack Obama a win over presumptive winner Hillary Clinton (she came in third), and Mike Huckabee won the GOP battle over Mitt Romney, who had been ahead in most polls for months. Five days later in the New Hampshire primary, the power of the vote was clear again: Clinton took first place over Obama in an upset victory.
Voting should not be taken for granted.
It is hard to imagine women being disenfranchised, or blood being shed in this country over voting rights, but that is our history.
It took a constitutional amendment (the 19th) in 1920 to give women the vote.
And in the South, African-Americans endured poll taxes, literacy tests and other indignities when they simply tried to exercise their right to vote. Things came to a head on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” when hundreds of blacks began a protest march to Montgomery, Ala. They were met by police who used tear gas, clubs and whips to stop them. The attack was televised, which helped galvanize other Americans to join the fight. That day is considered the catalyst that helped push through the Voting Rights Act that August, making it illegal to employ any measures designed to inhibit voters.
How can you not vote?
Yes, there is lingering skepticism, outrage and bitterness about the results from Florida in the 2000 presidential race. But Al Gore got over it and moved on to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
And yes, questions have been raised, notably in Rolling Stone by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., about the 2004 presidential results in Ohio, a key battleground state that meant victory for President Bush.
So, placing faith in the system sometimes is hard. But giving up on it is taking the easy way out.
If you do that, you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t like the outcome. And you lose complaining rights. Instead of deciding your vote doesn’t matter, demand accurate vote-machine technology. Choose candidates who mesh with your values. Volunteer for a campaign. Work for or against an issue you are passionate about.
And if you think one vote does not matter, consider:
• In the 1980 Nevada primary, Patty Cafferata defeated Bob Kerns for the District 25 seat by one vote.
• One vote by a Tennessee lawmaker was enough to give women the right to vote. The state was the last one needed to ratify the constitutional amendment.
• In 1868, a single vote in the U.S. Senate kept President Andrew Johnson from an impeachment conviction and removal from office. The vote for conviction was 35-19, one short of the required two-thirds.
• In the 1960 presidential race, John Kennedy’s popular vote margin over Richard Nixon was 118,550 out of almost 69 million votes cast.
Monterey County has 141,501 registered voters, and by now you should have received your voter guide. Mail ballots already are going out. Don’t wait until the last minute to decide. There is no excuse for not mailing in that ballot or showing up at the polling place on Election Day. Our democracy demands it.