Friends who know me well already know I don’t do early voting. I vote on election day. Always have. Always will. It’s my own personal tradition. When I wake up, get ready and head out the door to begin my day, I’ll first stop by my polling place and cast my ballot. Whether it’s a primary, a run-off or the general, I’ll be there.
I feel there’s just something special about participating in this great process on election day itself. For me, it’s like a holy day. All the ideals of our republic are supposed to shine through on days like this — the people take to the polls to hold their current leaders accountable, sometimes choose new and different leadership and hold their own referendum on the general state of things.
But that has not always been the case. For many, voting has not always been a right. In fact, it’s been denied to the overwhelming majority of all human people throughout history. Even in other self-styled republics or democracies throughout history, voting was always limited and the definition of citizen was always purposefully narrow.
Voting on election day gives me pause to remind myself of three important facts that help put the experiences of our very own republican into a larger social and historical context. By and large, these facts can not only be humbling, but also remind me there’s still a great deal of work to do to ensure all are fairly represented and included in the workings of our government…
1. We weren’t the first and we aren’t the best
American exceptionalism has clouded our historical and cultural viewpoints. We weren’t the first democracy or republic on this planet. Athens and Rome had that down in Western Civilization long before we came along. Our myths about the Revolution also cloud our views. Though I love the phrase, our “Great Experiment” didn’t come out of nothing. It was built on centuries of English legal and governmental transformation and the rise of the Enlightenment, beginning first with the medieval Magna Carta, which had slowly begun to make even Great Britain’s government more representative.
Our leaders like to praise our tradition of American democracy. The whole of some presidential administrations have been spent attempting to spread democracy around the world. But for all our bluster, we aren’t even the best representative democracy anymore. Our voting participation rates are embarrassing. An older study last decade found that U.S. voter turnout (as compared to registration) since 1945 averaged a measly 66.5 percent. Other Western nations fared much better — the United Kingdom at 75.2 percent, Germany at 85.4 percent, Italy at 89.8 percent, Australia at 94.5 percent. In May, the Pew Research Center put U.S. voter turnout near the bottom of their rankings, at 53.6 percent of the voting age population. In local elections here in Charlotte, voter participation can dip far into the single digits. This isn’t functional and it isn’t sustainable.
We’ve long been knocked off our high horse. The U.S. should focus on making its electoral politics more open and fair before we continue preaching the virtues of democracy around the world.
2. My vote isn’t revolutionary (anymore): I’m doing what people like me have been doing since the Revolution
My vote on election day isn’t revolutionary; perhaps it was in 1788, but not anymore. I’m white and I’m male. I come from a land-owning family. In fact, my own ancestors — some of whom fought in the Revolution, but also owned slaves in addition to their landed property — were likely among the first eligible voters in our republic. For centuries now, people like them and me have remained the primary participants in and the primary beneficiaries of our “representative” government.
Indigenous peoples from whom this land had been forcefully taken weren’t allowed to participate in choosing this government’s leaders until 1924, when Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship. Even then, some states continued to deny indigenous voting rights until 1954.
Those held in bondage, primarily African-Americans in the South, were denied even the most basic of human rights until 1865. Even then, people of color were systematically stripped of most civil rights granted to them including the right to vote for another whole century.
Women didn’t receive the right to vote nationally until the early 20th century and continued to face obstacles to voting and political participation by local officials or even their own husbands or fathers.
The fact that someone who looks like me walks into a polling place isn’t a surprise and it isn’t earth shattering. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to cast a ballot. This should always have been and should now be a reality for all people.
3. Too many are still disenfranchised
Many of the legal barriers that disenfranchised most minorities began to roll away in the 20th century. That transformation came at great cost — lives literally were lost during a movement to secure civil and voting rights for all people in this country.
But we are still left with a legacy and history of disenfranchisement (much of it violent throughout our history), and its effects can still be seen. As an example, laws that prohibit criminals from voting are themselves lingering after-effects of Jim Crow. They have a continued, deleterious effect primarily on the poor and people of color.
Efforts to roll back the gains of the 20th century have also picked up steam, with voter ID law in particular taking the country by storm. Recently, Alabama has been the most extreme, passing voter ID laws and then, shamelessly, shuttering DMV offices in primarily black counties. The desired results are clear — to limit voting access for African-Americans.
Voter ID laws and other barriers also limit access for our transgender siblings and a whole slew of other people with limited resources.
When I vote, and when I spend so much time writing about local politics and elections and encouraging others to take part, I do so because I want to make this process more fair, more open, more accessible and more participatory. We deserve a functioning government that answers to the people it represents; that can only happen when participation rates rise, not when participation is thwarted by those who have always had access, power, privilege and influence.
We have to do a better job of educating citizens, making voting more accessible and stamping out disenfranchisement. Until then, we’re nowhere near being “the greatest country on earth.”