i don’t vote*
*but you should.
I took this photo of B.H. ten years ago. He’s holding his voter ID card and showing off an index finger stained with purple ink, proving he’s just voted. It was election day in Sierra Leone — the country’s first since the end of a brutal decade of civil war. B.H. grew up during that war. Some of his classmates had seen human beings hacked apart with machetes. Some of his friends had been child soldiers, forced to commit these horrific atrocities. His generation bore the deep scars of this trauma without having the luxury to dwell on it; they had lost childhoods, loved ones, the freedom to choose their own future.
I could tell it would be tricky to talk politics with my students. They were used to feeling voiceless in the political process. So instead of debating about the parties or their candidates, we started reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and translating it into Krio. Through the stories of Brutus and Anthony, we discussed what makes a good leader, whether and how power can be held in check, the warning signs of tyranny. In the months that followed, my students performed scenes from our Krio translation on national radio, and we staged a full production for a community audience. I won’t pretend that this project dramatically changed minds, but over time I saw my students find their voices and practice articulating what they wanted from their next president.
I didn’t vote for Hillary. I didn’t vote for Obama. (Before you ready your pitchforks, I promise I didn’t vote for that Tang-colored toad either.) I didn’t vote because I can’t, which makes it all the more frustrating when I meet people who simply squander this right out of disenchantment or laziness.
For most of my adult life, I haven’t been allowed to vote in the country I call home. Sure, I pay U.S. taxes and celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but I was born and raised in the Great White North: the land of hockey and (now) legalized pot, of Virtue and Moir, of vast expanses of wild country and a mosaic (if an imperfect one) of First Nations and immigrant cultures.
I’m proud of being Canadian, but I actually can’t vote there either. In 2015, the conservative government stopped Canadians from voting if they had lived abroad for more than five years. It was a shrewd political strategy aimed at disenfranchising Canada’s 2.8 million expats — a group of voters that tends to skew liberal. In the wake of this block, public outcry resounded from sea to shining sea; even actor Donald Sutherland pitched in his two cents (including some questionable remarks about having a beaver in his underwear, because of course). It’s been three years and the Supreme Court of Canada has yet to reach a decision on expat voting rights.
At the time, I did what I could to advocate for the party and policies I supported. I volunteered as a web and graphic designer for a Liberal candidate who was facing a tough race in Ontario, I published interviews and articles about Canadian politics, but none of this substituted for actually casting a vote.
I get it. Voting can feel futile. A friend of mine was recently making the case that there’s no point to voting because
Your single vote is not going to tip the scale
It’s highly unlikely that the person you’re trying to vote into office will actually enact the policies you want.
The problem with the first argument is that while a single vote may not decide the result, a lot of elections (particularly local ones) are won and lost by tiny margins. The more people think their individual vote doesn’t matter, the more those missing votes add up.
I saw this when I was working on Liz Riley’s campaign in 2015. Each day, she and her team of volunteers would knock on doors in her district and talk to constituents. She was running for office in a staunchly conservative district, but we saw that actually listening to people and building connections with them brought a lot of voters to her side. They were able to experience what I knew, which is that she’s brilliant, dedicated, and has thoughtful views on a lot of the issues they care about.
Her opponent ultimately won by 2096 votes. In our post-mortem, I was surprised at how much it all came down to running out of time. As hard as Liz and her volunteers worked, there were 2096 doors they hadn’t reached. If they had had the time and resources to talk to those voters, the scale might well have tipped.
In general elections, your vote may feel like a drop in the bucket, but at the state level, your vote is crucial — especially right now. If you live in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, or New York, there’s a good chance your vote could help flip the state legislature.
State legislative races can seem like the unsexiest variety of election, but they’re hugely important. Not only do these bodies make a lot of decisions that affect our daily lives (on healthcare access, transportation, education), they’re also incubators for policies that end up spreading to other states and often reaching the national level (think Obamacare).
Most importantly, after the census in 2020, state legislatures will be in charge of redistricting. This means they’ll be redrawing district lines and will hopefully curb rampant gerrymandering: the devious strategy that allows parties to split up communities, dilute minority votes, and cherry-pick their own voters.
To my friend’s second point, voting may not be a guarantee that you’ll get every policy you want, but the past two years make a pretty good case for why voting can still benefit you as an individual. Voting is important because NOT voting gives power to people who may actively work against your interests.
Say you’re a straight white millennial guy with an average job. You can just about cover your own rent and living expenses. You don’t see why the midterm elections matter and don’t plan to vote. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has had two Supreme Court seats to fill (lifetime appointments that will endure long after he’s gone). The Senate confirmed beer-and-calendar-enthusiast Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court by a margin of two votes. With conservative justices firmly in the majority, the Supreme Court begins dismantling Roe v. Wade, severely diminishing women’s access to abortion. At this point, your girlfriend gets pregnant.
I’m simplifying of course (if you want to get into midterm math, I highly recommend Nate Silver’s forecasting geekery over at FiveThirtyEight), but my point is that there are a lot of ways that the midterm elections can affect your personal interest. You may not be aware of these effects until something happens to change your life. You lose your job. You’re injured in an accident. If you give up your right to choose who represents you, you’re leaving your future self vulnerable to people who don’t share your priorities.
There’s a broader case to be made for voting, too, if you consider the many other people who may be vulnerable to the effects of these policies. Aristotle famously writes, “Man is a political animal.” He explains that by logic, the good of society should take priority over the good of the individual, because it’s only within the context of society that the individual continues to thrive (the same way a hand or foot is useless when severed from the body). Even if you can’t see how one politician’s decisions might affect you personally, you can be sure they will affect others around you — and that in turn will affect you.
On that quiet, misty morning in Freetown ten years ago, as B.H. and I walked to the polling station, it was as if the whole city was holding its breath, bracing for violence. People kept their heads down, lined up quietly, and cast their votes, but I will never forget B.H.’s smile the moment he emerged — giddy, resplendent, aware that he’d just done something important for his and his country’s future.