Not voting is not a position or a stance. It is inherently a negative; an absence where there could be substance.
I remember being a senior in high school in 2004. Our political science class was revved up for the Bush/Kerry election, but because we were 17, we couldn’t take our enthusiasm to the polls. It pained all of us to wait except for my desk partner, who told the class (including our teacher) again and again that voting doesn’t matter. At the time, I didn’t understand how anyone could be apathetic about the opportunity to vote. My friend had a long history of going against the grain just to stand out, so I assumed that this too would pass once she was no longer a teenager.
Fast-forward to 2018. Many elections and one adversarial foreign government’s interference later, I spend my weekends going door to door and talking to voters. Most people who answer are kind and happy to see a volunteer. But there are always a few that scowl, wave my literature away, and tell me that they have no intentions of voting. Evidently, this isn’t something that people grow out of. This is the over 40% of eligible voters who never filled out a ballot in 2016.
Voting has become increasingly important to me over the years not just because of our current political climate, but because certain issues that appear on the ballot became priorities as I got older. When I had to jump through hoops with insurance companies just to get the birth control I needed, I finally understood the importance of reproductive autonomy and voted pro-choice. When I started teaching on an unlivable salary, I attended union meetings and became a labor advocate. When I moved to Annapolis, I became aware of just how many people depend on a clean Chesapeake Bay for their food and water. Essentially, different choices and experiences in my life have prompted me to care deeply about certain causes.
I take my cares and concerns to every door that I knock on. I’ve been hugged, invited in for water and a snack, and cheered on by complete strangers. Truth be told, nothing will lift your spirits quite like these moments. But I’ve found that the real work of interacting with voters is not when we roll our eyes together about Trump, not when I ask them which candidates they’ve heard of before, but when I ask, “What issues matter most to you?”
Why? Because each and every one of you, no matter how politically involved you are – even if you claim to “hate politics” – cares about something. It doesn’t matter if you describe yourself as ambivalent or outright uninterested in politics. Are you bothered by a recent traffic surge in your area? Or maybe all of this summer’s rain has caused flooding damage to your town? Read up on local candidates who will stand up to overdevelopment. Is your county suffering from a shortage of teachers or first responders? Seek out folks who intend to bring back jobs and pay workers what they’re worth.
If you’ve wracked your brain and truly can’t think of an issue that affects you directly, I have a few. You still need quality, affordable health care. You live on the same planet I do, breathe the same air I breathe, and if you won’t be alive in 2040 when the United Nations predicts a climate crisis, your children will be. (And to any climate change skeptics who are reading: I work with some of the top scientists in the country on climate change initiatives. I know of what I speak.)
You also, as an American, live in a country of the people, by the people, for the people. It was founded on the premise that elections are legitimate and everyone eligible to vote has a voice. Does that sound like the U.S. in 2018? Our intelligence community has concluded that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election. As a result, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has published a report on recommended steps “to improve the security of election infrastructure and safeguard its integrity and credibility.” Now, during early voting periods, voter suppression efforts are ramping up in battleground states like Georgia and North Dakota. We have entered a period of instability, amplified by a president who lies, demonizes the free press, and seeks to stifle our freedom of assembly.
Democracies don’t die overnight. Remember the analogy of the frog in the pot? If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will quickly hop out. But if you gently place the frog into tepid water and ever so slowly turn it up to a boil, it won’t even notice. One of my co-workers knows this all too well. She lived through the 1976 military coup and subsequent period of state-sponsored terrorism in Argentina, and often speaks of the staggering parallels between the coup’s beginnings and the Trump administration’s current aims. Dartmouth professor of government John Carey voices similar concerns, telling The Washington Post that “it’s only in retrospect that you can point to the bright line” when democracy crumbles. At the time, he adds, “there’s usually a debate about whether this is an advance or a setback.”
Voters like me are heading to the polls because we know what is at stake, and we’re terrified that the rest of the country won’t wake up until it’s too late. This is the part where, dear reader, I ask you not to be selfish. We’re all in this together.
Instead of thinking about all the things you could be doing on November 6 instead of standing in line to mark a ballot, think about your brothers and sisters whose freedoms are already being eroded and erased.
Instead of thinking about how terrible you think “both options” are, think of specific marginalized communities whose freedoms hinge on one candidate being elected over the other.
Instead of shrugging your shoulders at climate change scenarios because they’re not happening this very minute, take the time to elect folks who will keep our planet healthy and habitable for future generations.
Not voting is not a position or a stance. It is inherently a negative; an absence where there could be substance. Take a fraction out of your day to stand for something you care about or someone you love. Exercise a right that, if you don’t, you risk losing.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.