Once Election Day has come and gone on November 8, millions of eligible voters will still not have cast a ballot. Their excuses are many and often understandable, and I wish our Get Out the Vote efforts offered a better opportunity for answering them. I hope this can at least start a conversation.
Many see politics as a mean and dysfunctional business, and they would rather just not think about it. Unfortunately, that attitude plays into the Republicans’ long-term strategy of convincing people that government is no help. The truth is that government is needed for many things, and we all ought to be trying to make it work better. When people don’t vote, they merely surrender their voice.
Then there are the people who vote in presidential elections but don’t bother for what are lamentably labeled “off-year” elections. Presidential elections may be a more engaging spectacle, but there are all kinds of problems with neglecting state and local contests. For one thing, it gives rise to the delusion that if only we elected a really great president, he could solve our problems. Then when problems like inflation are beyond the reach of even the president’s power, he (or she) gets the blame, and there’s a knee-jerk reaction to kick his (or her) party out of office.
The truth is that state and local governments have enormously important functions. State and local taxes (which can be progressive or regressive depending on the mix) play a major role in providing education; building and maintaining our infrastructure; caring for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled; preserving and protecting our environment; supporting access to health care; and keeping us safe. I avoid criticizing people who are ticket-splitters, but the bottom line is that Democrats are more committed to doing those things well.
Finally, many people choose to stay home because they figure their one vote doesn’t ultimately make a difference. The common response is to point to very close elections, but admittedly it is extremely rare for an election to be decided by a single vote. I believe that the best antidote to that attitude is for people to see themselves as part of a larger group and to feel a sense of responsibility to support their group’s values and interests.
For example, the political power of right-wing evangelicals has a lot to do with the ability of their churches to forge a strong political culture. So strong is the force of that tie, an overwhelming majority of evangelicals have been persuaded to back candidates who hardly seem like paragons of Christian virtue.
Democrats have been less successful at building that sense of community and commitment, with the notable exception of the Black church, which, through many long years of segregation, has given Black voters a sense that they need to stick together. Labor unions used to perform a similar function, but their political influence has withered as their numbers have shrunk. It may be that the Democratic party is too diverse to create an inclusive sense of belonging, but I don’t see why our political communities can’t be as diverse as our membership.
I love the Siouan word oyate, which simply means “the people” but evokes a rich sense of belonging. We should all ask ourselves, what is my oyate? Who are my people? Maybe it’s women committed to preserving their reproductive freedom. Maybe it’s nature lovers dedicated to doing something about climate change. Whatever it is, think about how it feels to stand with them. When this election is over, we can celebrate our victories together, or at least know we have not let one another down.
Solidarity forever! We shall overcome.
For information about how and where to vote, the Secretary of State’s website is a great resource. Go to https://www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/.