Why Voting Carries a Profound Meaning

Dan Shea
Dan Shea
30 Oct
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A lot of young people are cynical about politics. We often hear that “it’s all corrupt” and “I really don’t care about politics.” To many, campaigns are a farce—a tiresome spectacle to be endured—and voting itself is pointless, a waste of time!

That’s too bad.  And it’s not true.

Voting, the simple act of checking a box, pushing a lever, hitting a button, or touching a video screen, carries profound meaning. It says that each person matters; that everyone is a player in the system. Voting symbolizes equality, and it gives everyone the right to air grievances and to help direct the course of policy. Characteristics that too often shape one’s standing in society, such as race, gender, affluence, education, and social connections, are invisible in the voting booth. On Election Day, the powerful CEO must stand in line with the factory worker, the teacher, the nurse, and the farmer. Everyone has a seat at the table of what the late novelist H.G. Wells once called our “democratic feast.”

We can gripe about some of the mechanics of elections—the amount of money spent or the number of negative ads—but no system is truly democratic if its citizens are denied the right to vote. It’s no surprise that disenfranchised groups throughout American history, including women and African Americans, set their sights on voting. “Suffrage,” noted Susan B. Anthony, “is the pivotal right.”

There are some basic, nuts-and-bolts reasons to vote, too.  More often than you might imagine, elections can come down to a small number of votes. Did you know, for example, that in the 2000 presidential election more than 100 million votes were cast, but George W. Bush was given the keys to the White House because he got 537 more votes in Florida than Al Gore? At the local level, many elections are won by wafer-thin margins. Case in point: My mother was once elected to the school board by three votes!  So yes, every vote does count.

Learn more about Pearson’s new Project Imagine US History program for Grades 9-12 featuring immersive virtual lessons! 

Studies have also shown that what government does and does not do—the policies it adopts or rejects and the money it spends—reflect the interests of voters. In other words, if you care about change, one meaningful way to begin the process is to vote. It’s true what they say: elections have consequences.

Consider “Generation Z,” those born in 1995 or later. This group cares about a range of issues, from social justice in inner-city communities to environmental protection. Yet while they might turn out for a march or protest, their level of turnout in municipal elections is often miniscule. Protests are an important way to bring about change, but picking the personnel of government is fundamental, because these are the people who set the policies in the first place. If this group of young people sits on the sidelines, why should public officials pay any attention to their concerns?

The situation is only slightly better for presidential elections. The Census Bureau reports that just 34 percent of 18-year-olds voted in the 2016 presidential contest, well below the rate for older Americans. As disappointing as the turnout was among 18-year-olds for the last presidential election, the midterms fared even worse. As shocking as it might seem, only 12.5 percent of 18-year-olds voted in the 2014 midterm election.

Given this lack of interest in off-year elections, why is the news filled with talk of this year’s contest? It’s no secret that the first two years of the Trump Administration have been controversial. While many applaud President Trump’s efforts, others are aghast. This election gives Americans the chance to reinforce his agenda or to slow it down. Keep in mind that Republicans control both the House and Senate, but the margin is razor thin. Maintaining Republican control of Congress or flipping either chamber to the Democrats is a big deal. It’s no wonder that many believe this will be the most important midterm election in a generation.

In fact, the historic nature of this election begs the question: Will this be the year that voter participation among young people takes an upward swing? Early indicators show that this may, indeed, be the case. A recent poll by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that 34 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds said they are extremely likely to vote in this year’s midterms.

Let’s hope we do see historic levels of turnout in November. The bottom line is that Americans of any age should celebrate the opportunity to stand in line, to raise our hand. We should call to mind the men and women who have struggled to give us this fundamental right. The outcome might not break our way this time, but the next opportunity is always around the corner. Candidates come and go, but the voice of the people endures – that is, so long as we vote!

Learn more about Pearson’s new Project Imagine US History program for Grades 9-12 featuring immersive virtual lessons! 

About the AuthorDaniel M. Shea is a Professor of Government at Colby College, where he directed the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement from 2012 to 2017. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Albany, State University of New York. An award-winning teacher, Shea has spearheaded numerous initiatives at Colby and other institutions designed to help young Americans better appreciate their potential to bring about democratic change. The author or editor of nearly twenty books and dozens of articles and chapters on the American political process, Shea’s research focuses on campaigns and elections, political parties, the politics of scandal, and grassroots activism. His coauthored volume The Fountain of Youth (2007) garnered national attention for its findings on how local party organizations often neglect young citizens. His work on civility and compromise led to the publication of a co-edited volume, Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics (2012). Other works authored by Shea include Let’s Vote: The Essentials of the American Electoral Process and the college text Living Democracy.

Sources:
https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/7/18/17585898/young-voter-turnout-polls-midterms-2018

https://news.gallup.com/poll/234314/global-warming-age-gap-younger-americans-worried.aspx

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-beall/8-key-differences-between_b_12814200.html

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-20/gen-z-to-outnumber-millennials-within-a-year-demographic-trends

http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/

https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/age-and-sex/2016-age-sex-composition.html

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