The church I used to serve in Phoenix shared space with a preschool. It was also a polling site in every election.
I used to set up a card table in our courtyard area, outside of where people were going in to vote, and I’d have cookies or donuts or something, and also church brochures and swag, for anybody who wanted to stop and chat about the church. It was always a bit of happy chaos in the mornings, when all the preschool kids were getting dropped off AND neighbors were coming through to vote.
I will never forget one of those election days, when one of the preschool moms stopped and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was election day. I guess I should go vote. Do you think … I mean, can I just vote here?”
“Um … well, it depends on where you live,” I said. “You should have gotten something in the mail telling you where your polling place is.”
“Oh. I don’t think I got anything.”
“Well, you can look it up online,” I said. And then I had a thought … “I mean, if you’re registered. Are you registered to vote?”
“It’s a box you check when you get your driver’s license,” I said to this grown-ass woman who HAS CHILDREN.
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe I’m not registered.” (Wait for it). “Can I just register here?”
OMG THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS.
Please, folks. Don’t be this person. Do you know what was at stake in Arizona elections at that moment? The very concept of public schools. The free reign on the NRA. And a sheriff who proudly and continually violated the human rights of immigrants, destroyed countless families, and who—but for a pardon from Trump—would be in prison himself right now. All that, and there were still healthy and able adults walking around who didn’t know it was an election day. Who were not even registered to vote. It’s inexcusable.
It’s also frighteningly common.
Say all you want about the toxic nature of our polarized two-party system. But there is a third party in play that has more decision-making power than Democrats and Republicans combined. It’s not the Independents or the Green Party. It’s not the Tea Party or the Libertarians. It is the woefully Unengaged. And they are destroying our democracy.
And it’s not just the people who aren’t registered. It’s the people who are registered, but only get mildly interested when it’s a Presidential election. And/or, those who don’t even go vote unless there is someone on the ticket about whom they feel very strongly.
If we fail to recognize the power present in the rest of the ticket—and in those local and state elections that happen between general elections—then we aren’t really participating in the process. We are giving a nod to the ultimate outcome. But by then, we’ve lost our voice.
Case in point: our current president is a despot who received less than half of the popular vote. Furthermore, he was elected by a minority of the PARTICIPATING voters; who represented only 58 percent of eligible voters.
More than those who actually voted for him, I blame the ones who stayed home. The most popular reason for sitting it out? “I didn’t like either of them!”
I heard it over and over again. So did you. “I don’t like either of them, I don’t know who I’d pick.” So they stayed home. And watched.
You know what? Your elected officials don’t have to be your BFF. You don’t have to hang out with them at the bar, or send them a Christmas card. You don’t even have to say hi at the grocery store. But if you don’t vote, somebody else will for sure pick for you. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want that.There are many things in play here. There’s a degree of willful ignorance at work in most of our communities; people who don’t understand the system, and don’t want to understand it, because their lives are mostly comfortable and it’s complicated and “nothing will change in my life no matter who’s in office.” This is the epitome of privilege, and we need to work to demonstrate exactly what’s at stake.
There’s also a large element of self-absorption plaguing our culture. We are “so busy.” We are “so tired.” Like that mom I met in Phoenix, we “totally forgot that was happening today!” Because in spite of months of ads and radio spots, and the clutter of colorful signs littering our sidewalks and our neighbors’ yards, we are too preoccupied with maintaining our own schedules and spaces to spare a thought for the wider community we’re a part of. (Voter turnout in the U.S. trails most developed countries, by the way.)
But mostly, our trouble is that we’re waiting for a Messiah. We’re waiting for someone who inspires and uplifts us, who makes us feel feelings, who has the rockstar appearance but a monastic lifestyle; someone who promises great change without making anyone uncomfortable; someone who represents the very best of who we WANT to be, without challenging any of our dearly held assumptions about who we actually are.
Does that sound about right?
Many Millennials who voted for Obama in their first election sat it out in 2016 in alarming numbers. The theory is that nobody captivated their devotion quite like he had. They lost interest because the whole thing was so gross.
Well, I get it. It was gross. But there will not be an Obama in every election. There might not even be an Obama in every lifetime. Meanwhile, SOMEbody is going to win. If you want to see better, more qualified and more inspiring names at the top of the ticket, then you have to be involved in earlier parts of the process.
If you want better candidates, you have to work to push our best leaders forward. Not every four years, but every single time that polling place is open. And not just on election DAY, but every day. If we want to begin to change the tone of our national discourse, voting is not enough. We have to be engaged in our communities; getting to know our state and local leaders, holding them accountable, and helping to create the kind of systems we want to be a part of.
On that same note? I’d strongly urge you to stop playing the strategy game with your vote. The “lesser of two evils” approach might feel like you are keeping the truly problematic people out of office; but it also means that we aren’t pushing our best leaders forward. We aren’t amplifying minority voices, and we aren’t voting our values. If everyone would truly engage the process—get to know the issues and people on the ballot, at every level of government, and then WORK to get those people in office—we would be having entirely different conversations right now.
There are so many ways to engage. You can register people to vote. Canvas. Call. Give. Put your own name on that ballot next time. But whatever you do, recognize the power of the primary. Your local and state governments are where real change is happening; the place where real decisions that effect the life of your community are happening. And, most importantly, these are the places where you can actually have real live conversations about actual issues. Get past the sound bites and get into the the process.
Just get out there. Don’t throw away your vote to the Unengaged ticket.
Learn more about voting—polling places, area elections, ballots—by visiting the League of Women Voters Vote411 website.