On Voting: It’s Always the Most Important Election of Your Life

Todd Gitlin Reminds Us of What It Means to Cast a Ballot

I.

This is an election like no other.

The most important election of our time.

The election that opens the future or slams it shut.

That rewrites the past.

The most important election of your life. Anyone’s life.

The most important election since the last election that was called the most important election of your life.

You know, it was almost always true.

Boy cries wolf. No wolf. Boy cries wolf again. No wolf. Boy cries. Wolf shows. Then a pack. This time, a pack as big as a forest in flames.

Glaciers melt. Farms parch. Seas boil. Species collapse.

By the millions, people starve. Flee. Drown.

 

II.

Your vote merges into a sea of votes.

This is, in a way, magical.

For you, a drop in the dark. For the country, history.

Which is lived forwards, like the rest of life.

You use your best judgment, and vote. Or don’t.

Possibly you don’t like the way things turn out

But think you’re blameless. You wash your hands.

 

III.

The vote: such a banal thing, paltry, trivial, like tying your shoe laces or adjusting your earrings, except this is a ritual you perform only once every two years, or four, because your husband or wife or partner asks you to, or your union, or some group, or you see a billboard or flyer, or somebody knocks on your door and reminds you, or you know somebody who knows somebody who tells you that X or Y is an all-right guy or gal, or you once shook the hand of X or Y, or offered up your baby to be kissed, or you like X’s tone of voice, or dislike the tone of opponent Z, or heard a promise you liked, or remembered something Z once said that offended you, or Z belongs to the wrong ethnic group or race or religion, whereas X or Y belongs to the right one, or you plain feel that it’s your civic duty, the kind of obligation that most of the time you don’t much care about, but this time the duty seems tangible, a matter of civic hygiene, even pride.

The most important election since the last election that was called the most important election of your life.

Most of the time, in most of the country, it has been a matter of getting yourself to the right polling place on the right day, and signing in, whereupon a volunteer confirms that you’re on the rolls and that your signature matches an earlier one; and then you fill out a ballot and deposit it in a slot in a box, or pull a lever or two, or click on a screen; and you’re done. Maybe it takes you an hour, maybe less, maybe more; maybe much more, because the authorities want you to pay for the privilege. You try to time it so you can slip in before heading to work, or afterward. Or you mistime it, and the poll worker can’t spell well, or can’t understand your pronunciation, in which case you have to give her some help.

You may have heard that once upon a benighted time, ballots were paid for in turkeys or booze, or that ballot boxes were literally stuffed, or dumped into the trunks of vanishing cars, or otherwise disposed of or augmented by urban machines in New York, Chicago, Newark, and lots of other cities.

This is true.

 

IV.

So if it’s such a paltry thing, and since your vote is almost certain not to be the deciding vote, and since as the political scientists have been telling us for decades, it’s in a certain sense irrational to vote, a nuisance or worse, because your vote costs you something, time you don’t have, or carfare, or the cost of obtaining your photo ID, or the baby-sitter cancels, or you have to drag yourself out of bed when you don’t feel like it, and you might have spared yourself the trouble, or earlier, the struggle to register, and when election day rolls around you might be shopping, or playing handball, or watching the Today show—

But if voting is a trifle, why do some people brag about not voting? Or take pride in a protest vote? Why feel so passionately that it’s naïve, gullible, immoral or stupid to vote? That a vote expresses confidence in The System? That it furthers the grand con, promotes the democratic illusion? That your heroic dissent sends a message? Why is it noble to vote for a candidate who polls in single digits; or not vote at all?

If you’re sending a message, to whom is it delivered? Is it returned, addressee unknown? If you receive a reply message, is it encouraging?

I’m guessing, reader, that you know people like that, might even be related to them, might even be one—who say, Vote? Are you kidding? For which fox you prefer to raid the henhouse? For another batch of false promises? For one more betrayal? For which lying politician should stick his hand in your pocket next?

Or: Frankly, I’m don’t care about politics.

Or: These candidates suck

Or: How’s my life going to change?

Or: Nothing changes.

Or: Goddamned if I’m going to vote for a corrupt party of careerists, neoliberal sellouts, nomination-stealers, Wall Street stooges who voted for the crime bill, the Iraq war, the bank-loving bankruptcy law, who brought us the Korean and Vietnam war, or started us down the deregulation road to disaster—I’m guessing, reader, that you know some of them, might even be related to them—might even be one.

But if voting is a trifle, why do some people brag about not voting? Or take pride in a protest vote?

If you declare a plague on both houses, who dies of that plague?

You may disdain wearing a mask, but the coronavirus does not care.

You don’t have to like mortality, or have a beer with it, but stare it in the face.

This is not a popularity contest.

You’re not being asked to marry the Democratic Party. It’s a hammer. It will not love you. It will not feed a bird. It will not light up the room. It will hammer a nail into a board. It will defend you from a fascist and a party of fascists.

 

V.

If voting is trivial, banal, fruitless, counterproductive, a sucker’s game, a con, why does the Republican Party, a minority party, go to great lengths to block it? Why did their Supreme Court trash the Voting Rights Act? Why do they crusade against nonexistent voter fraud? Why do they think felons who’ve served their time still don’t deserve the rights of a citizen? Why do their state officials systematically wreck open ballot access and smash up fair election districts, install voter ID requirements, eliminate polling places, cut back on early voting, require convicted felons to pay fines the amounts of which they have not been informed, limit drop boxes to one per county, toss mail-sorting equipment, try to cut back overtime and otherwise sabotage the post office? Why make voters near Atlanta wait for five hours, and in lines stretching a quarter-mile long in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, Ohio? What’s so frightful about the vote that lawyers and politicians put in long hours to obstruct it?

Well, for the lawyers, the answer is easy: those hours are billable, and plutocrats like Charles Koch and their minions stand in lines almost as long as the ones in Ohio and Georgia to press dollars into eager professional hands. But never mind.

Speaking of consequences, the judges appointed by a certain racketeer-conman overwhelmingly ratify the political decisions that guarantee long lines at polling places, which in turn discourage voters from going to the trouble of voting—which in turn improves these politicians’ chances of staying in office, where they can further shrink the electorate.

 

VI.

There’s been improvement. Voting is cheaper than it used to be. There was a time—decades—when an attempt to vote risked a death sentence.

Across much of the country, you would have taken your life in your hands to dare vote, or try to. If you were African-American in the post-Reconstruction South, say in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, an organizer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, might have escorted you to the registrar’s office, whereupon this organizer would, a while later, get a call from a man identifying himself as from the Citizens’ Council, saying: “If you take anybody else up to register you’ll never leave Greenwood alive”; whereupon this organizer would go back to the registrar’s office the next day with two more folks, occasioning a call from the registrar to the police, so that, some days later, three white men will jump the organizer and beat him up; and SNCC will send two more organizers; and the police will send dogs.

If voting is trivial, banal, fruitless, counterproductive, a sucker’s game, a con, why does the Republican Party, a minority party, go to great lengths to block it?

When white persons showed up at the courthouse to register, they would be asked to copy and interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution reading, “All elections by the people shall be by ballot,” whereas Black persons might be asked to interpret a section consisting of 256 words: for example, Article 7, Section 182:

The power to tax corporations and their property shall never be surrendered or abridged by any contract or grant to which the state or any political subdivision thereof may be a party, except that the Legislature may grant exemption from taxation in the encouragement of manufactures and other new enterprises of public utility extending for a period of not exceeding ten (10) years on each such enterprise hereafter constructed, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on each addition thereto or expansion thereof, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on future additions to or expansions of existing manufactures and other enterprises of public utility.

Never mind that the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, proclaimed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and that “Congress shall have power to enforce” that right; or that President Ulysses S. Grant, who created the Justice Department in order to destroy the Ku Klux Klan, called the Fifteenth Amendment “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”

 

VII.

Voting for political leaders is not like declaring your favorite flavor, color, band, or action hero.

It’s not like liking.

It’s not deciding whom to sleep with or expel from the island. Or marry.

It’s not like deciding whether to swing at the pitch or let it go.

Voting is helping to lay out, and design, and build a field of action.

The vote is the price of the ticket.

Once the field is laid out, you’re free to play the rest of the game. To try changing the rules. To change strategies, tactics, coaches. The game is no picnic. There’s fun, there’s grief. You have to fight it out. In truth, there is no end of fighting. Win some, lose some. You don’t get to pick the players.

In truth, democracy is a verb. You keep doing it. You keep choosing life.

–October 19, 2020

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, was the third president of Students for a Democratic Society (1963-64), and an organizer of the first national demonstration against the Vietnam war (1965) as well as a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank against their loans to apartheid South Africa (1965), and many political campaigns since, including opposition to South Africa investments by the University of California and Harvard (1985-87), and to fossil fuel investments at Harvard (2013- ). He served on the board of Greenpeace USA for three years (2003-06). He is the author of eighteen books, including four novels, of which the next, The Opposition, set in the 1960s, is to be published by Guernica Editions in 2021.





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