We’ve all heard many reasons to vote: “It’s your right. Use it or lose it.” “It’s your civic duty.” “If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.”
However, it’s still common in the U.S. for only about half of those who are registered to actually fill out a ballot. Why is that?
In the old days, and I mean over a hundred years ago, there were often monetary incentives to vote. Political parties regularly paid voters $5 or $10 to cast a favorable ballot; sometimes payment came in the form of a keg of whiskey, a sack of flour or, in the case of an 1890 New Hampshire Congressional race, a live pig. Self-interest seems to have been a strong motivator.
Other countries take a different approach. In Australia, for example, voting is compulsory and you could be fined for not voting; $20 for the first offense and up to $50 for repeat election avoiders. As a result, the voter turnout down-under never drops below 90%. On the other hand, more than three-quarters of the citizens in Sweden, South Korea, Israel and New Zealand regularly and voluntarily vote in elections, and without being bribed with livestock.
So, what’s motivating people here in “the land of the free” to vote in a presidential primary?
One thing is known — people come out in greater numbers when they want change, and this year, the polls show that dissatisfaction with the current party in power is higher than its been in over two decades.
It’s easy to see why. The government has failed to respond to the existential threat of the climate crisis. It has failed to respond to the devastating increase in gun violence and mass shootings. The government has ignored the disabling economic burdens that health-care, student debt, child-care and housing have on families; it has separated the families of asylum seekers at the border and forced their children to live like caged animals; all the while, it has lavished its attention on Wall Street and eliminated taxes for corporations and the wealthy.
Along the way, our current president became only our third leader in 230 years to be impeached, and he, along with his party, have demonstrated their disdain for Congress and for our Constitution. Consequently, people are desperately looking for new leadership. But only those who participate in the 2020 primary will have a voice in who our next president or the Democratic nominee will be. Turnout for the 2020 primaries may well be the largest and most important of our lifetime.
But why should I vote? What difference can my vote make?
Elections are almost never decided by a single vote — but it does happen. During the most recent midterm elections in 2018, statewide elections in Alaska and Kentucky were decided by a single vote. While, here in Washington, Republican Senator Doug Erickson beat out Democrat Pinky Vargas by a mere 45 votes. Since 1970, statewide elections have been decided by five votes or less 49 times. And who can forget the 2000 presidential election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore that came down to just 537 contested votes in Florida? So, yes, voting counts!
However, I don’t expect that my one vote will tip the balance. I’ll vote to be part of something bigger. Democracy is not a solo act. It is about being connected to like-minded friends, community and a movement that can make change happen. It is what those in power fear, or as graphic novelist, Alan Moore put it, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
Given what I now know, I’m asking myself, “So, why shouldn’t I vote?” The Washington primary ballot is simple and straightforward. I have only two decisions to make. First, to vote as a Republican or as a Democrat. If I vote as a Republican, there is only Donald Trump on the ballot. If I vote as a Democrat, I have to decide which of the 13 candidates listed, do I believe will make the best president and would best represent my ideals.
By now, that decision has been made much easier as fewer candidates are still in the race. Easier still is returning my ballot by simply placing it, postage free, in my letterbox or in the ballot collection box in front of the library. I can then go freely with a clear conscience and tell everyone that yes, I am a voter, and ask them in return, “Did you vote?”
So, my question is, “What will you say when your friends and family ask, ‘Did you vote in the huge presidential primary of 2020?’”
I hope you will be able to say, “Yes I did. Did you?”
Art Chippendale has lived on Vashon for 24 years with his wife Tania Kinnear. He has been active in community organizations and co-founded the group “Unifying for Democracy.”