David Hamilton Golland answers: "Why Vote?"
In October 2017, fresh from a string of victories in Congressional elections, Donald Trump endorsed the winner of the Alabama Republican Senate primary election, former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. Despite Moore's recent history as an ideologue and the revelations of several women that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct when they were minors, he seemed on track to win the general election. After all, no Democrat had won a statewide race in Alabama in decades.
But then a remarkable thing happened: people voted. In particular, large numbers of African-American women, many of whom had not voted in many years, turned out at the polls. Roy Moore was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones.
The right to vote is one of the most cherished and important of our rights as American citizens. The founders fought for it in the Revolutionary War, an act of bravery centered around the notion that, as Thomas Paine put it, there should be “no taxation without representation.” As part of a vast global British Empire, American colonists were not represented in the Parliament and had no sway over the decisions of the king.
The Republic they established was by no means perfect, nor is it today. However, by establishing the right to vote, first for landowners, eventually for all white men, later for all men, then for women, and most recently for citizens over the age of 18, We the People have set ourselves on a course to become a greater, more free, society. The decisions made by our government are subject to review by the People, and we regularly remove from office those leaders who have not lived up to the high standards we expect of them.
our democracy remains fragile. History shows that it is far more difficult to keep a republic then it is to lose it.
What if we lose the right to vote? Even tyrannical governments rely on consent of the governed, but in undemocratic societies, a withdrawal of consent takes the form of violent protest and major upheavals, giving a disproportionate voice to the loudest and the strongest. I prefer to live in a more stable society where protest and advocacy are part of popular expression, but official consent comes through the ballot box.
Sometimes, in fact quite often, my favorite candidate loses. But voting is a social contract, and I am obligated to respect the results of a free election, just as I expect those who vote against my favorite candidate must respect the results when she wins. That doesn’t mean I have to respect the winning candidate as a person, nor his actions once in office. In fact, if he commits impeachable offenses (like using the job for financial gain or colluding with a foreign adversary) I very much support congressional candidates who would investigate his activities and, if necessary, remove him.
It's true that one vote usually doesn’t sway an election. But that's not always the case. In 2017, with the Virginia state legislature evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, a single vote actually determined who would become the tie-breaking legislator. That said, it’s increasingly frustrating, especially as you become more educated, to realize that major electoral decisions are most often made by the uninformed mass of the public. I’ve found it's best not to focus on what I can’t control but to focus instead on what I can. What I can control, in this republic, is whether or not I actually vote. And so every year, primary or general election, rain or shine, I do my duty and I vote. While much of the time this has been routine, it has resulted in the occasional wonderful moment. When I was growing up, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to vote for an African-American presidential nominee in a general election. Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs were exciting, but were the exceptions that proved the rule, and in 1988 an African-American major-party presidential nominee seemed as far away as ever. But in November 2008, as I stood in line, I turned around and saw a young man waiting to vote in his very first presidential election. “What a great year to cast your first presidential vote!” I exclaimed. From time to time, I think about that young man, how different the world has been for him, experiencing early adulthood during the Obama Administration, than it was for me. If anyone knows the power of the ballot, it’s him.
How can you decide for whom who to vote? For one thing, don’t vote for a candidate simply because you think that candidate can win. Vote for candidates who share your values and your beliefs. Of course, it’s difficult in today’s media to know what candidates actually stand for. So here’s what you should do: first, read a print newspaper, even if you read its online edition. Second, focus on articles that describe what the candidates stand for, rather than articles that report on the polls. Third, think very carefully about what the candidates are saying. Fourth, try to be an unselfish citizen and think about what is best for the country, even if it isn’t best for you personally. And finally, actually go and vote.
The author is Associate Professor of History and President of the Faculty Senate at Governors State University.
Illinois primary elections will be held on March 20, 2018, and on May 8 in Indiana. To register to vote in the state of Illinois, visit ova.elections.il.gov. In Indiana, visit indianavoters.com.