October 23, 2020
By Catherine Chavaree (she/her), Office Assistant and Community Organizer, Mabel Wadsworth Center
What notions do the word “voting” include for the American citizen? For some, it may be long lines and perhaps even (pre-COVID) a social outing; for others, it may conjure up images of career politicians engaged in spirited debate, or perhaps mudslinging ads that dominate television and social media. I grew up hearing the phrase, “it’s one’s civic duty to vote.” For many people, I suspect, voting is not at all a glamorous task; it’s a daunting chore. It’s off-putting to devote spare time from our already limited reserve to research issues that, on their surface, are certainly not as intriguing as celebrity drama, a favorite hobby, or a binge-worthy show. It might seem fruitless to engage in something that will seemingly have little effect on our day-to-day existence. When I bring up the topic to friends and loved ones, it’s usually in the context of “when are you planning on voting” or “have you voted today?” I am often met with an embarrassed or shameful reaction when they admit they have no plan to do so and have “not had time to do enough research,” or “I’ll do it next time.” As we have seen even more markedly in recent years, this can have detrimental consequences on major elections (e.g. the presidency). The word apolitical, defined as “not interested or involved in politics” according to a cursory Google Search is a behavioral stance among many citizens that is too prevalent to ignore. Only 51.8 percent of eligible voters that could have cast a ballot in the last presidential election did so. Historically, millennials, the cohort I belong to, have a reputation of being less engaged with the voting process than our predecessors. According to data from the U.S. Census website, roughly 46% of people aged 18-29 voted, compared to nearly 71% of those aged 65 or older. It can be deduced that people of this age will have a greater influence on the outcome of elections. Smugly declaring “I stay out of politics” is possibly a misguided attempt at seeming carefree and avoiding conflict. Desmond Tutu’s oft-cited quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” perhaps best destroys the idea that not voting is cool, nor should it even be acceptable. I took to Instagram and did a light polling of my followers (all millennials) and asked them to send me a few sentences on the importance of voting. Some of these are as follows:
“Because others before me [sic] risked their lives for unknown people and unknown futures, a sacrifice I’m able to honor by voting” – Dani F-B
“Voting is a way to advocate for myself and others less fortunate than me and directly impact my community.” –Sam B.
The best way to hold our peers accountable is by confronting each other and asking our friends to show up. Voting is a process that grants us a means to reclaim power and directly impact our society. In light of George Floyd’s murder, a perceived awakening to the realities of power systems seems to pique the interests of the younger generations. These systems of power that allow officers of the law to murder people based on their skin color and facial features were put in place by a society that also has the ability to dismantle it. Apathy is dangerous, caustic and completely avoidable. It’s also important to keep in mind that voting is for far more than just a presidential seat; from the school board to the city council to US Senate seats and more, voting can lead to change on a range of levels.
The topics central to voting can seem tricky to navigate, inflammatory or just downright boring but yours and future generations’ fate should be at the forefront of what interests you. It was not until recently that I considered factors beyond myself, but also factors that are intrinsic to who I am that the sheer magnitude of why I and everyone else needs to vote. I am a member of one of Maine’s four federally recognized tribes. My father, who gave me this heritage, was born in 1962 and is a member of the Boomer generation, current popular meme fodder that is largely justified (if you ask me). His uncle, my grandmother’s older brother, was only 19 when he lost his life fighting in a war for the USA in 1945. However, my great uncle was not able to vote in the very country he gave his life for, because Native people in Maine were not considered citizens, thus not granted the right to vote until 1968. How could I justify to myself not voting when my ancestors only two generations before me were denied this ability simply for existing? I vote in their honor. This is when I realized voting is a right, while choosing not to vote is a privilege. This is not to say everyone who doesn’t vote is blowing it off out of apathy or laziness. Some individuals face much larger barriers to voting, including but not limited to, larger distances to travel to vote, difficulty or inability to access transportation to a polling place, or lack of accurate voter information. Voter suppression, defined by Wikipedia as “a strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting” that historically harms disenfranchised groups of people. For example, according to the ACLU, several states have some laws or practices in place that particularly target BIPOC, students, and the elderly. Laws requiring people to bring specific types of IDs simply to vote are a barrier for many folks to vote. Fortunately, Maine does not use this practice. Also fortunately, Maine is one of 21 states, along with the District of Columbia that allow same day registration. I am fortunate to have several co-workers who offer a wealth of knowledge on a huge span of issues. One of these I have only learned in the last few weeks involves voting rights for incarcerated individuals, particularly here in the state of Maine. Maine allows all current and former incarcerated individuals to vote! As encouraging as this knowledge is, the fact that this is not the norm nationwide is a sobering fact, and indicative of a larger problem. I understand that becoming invested in any one thing leaves you vulnerable to disappointment, and simply deciding to sit out and avoid the headache that accompanies the research regarding candidates and policies can seem like an appealing option. Some argue that those with more liberal ideologies are only virtue signaling. Some believe once their preferred candidate is elected, many “activists” will become comfortable and likely to take a seat once, feeling less engaged to fight for issues that don’t affect them; especially for a greater quality of life for BIPOC and LGBTQ plus individuals. The fear that complacency will replace dreams of a revolution seems unlikely, though I sympathize with that worry. I have to believe that those who truly care will not quietly fade into the background once November 4th shows up. I have to believe that whatever the outcome, the knowledge and hardship of this past year will embolden those to seek further action until we are truly an egalitarian society for all. Voting extends beyond an item on our to-do list. Voting is harm reduction, and a means of telling our community “you matter to me”.