Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.
As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”
We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,
“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”
She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.
And that interaction has haunted me ever since.
I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.
But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.
I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.
I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:
- Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
- Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
- Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot
The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.
Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.
Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.
You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.
And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.
When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.
But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:
What do you mean by “matter?”
Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?
Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?
Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?
Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?
If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.
If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.
If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.