I very clearly remember the first time I voted.
I turned 18 in a non-election year, or at least, not a significant election year. By the time the 1998 mid-term election approached, I was off to college in a different state and completely unaware of the significance of mid-term elections. I happily and obliviously ignored the importance of the United States House and Senate, all while plans to impeach the president gained steam as a new Congress prepared to get sworn in.
When I cast my absentee ballot for George W. Bush, I didn’t pay attention to the other elected positions. I didn’t even show concern for the election of the Michigan governor, despite my own high school experience with testing that should have showed me just how important that elected position was. It would be years before I understood that elections were about more than the president, often lazily choosing to vote straight ticket because I had no idea the significance of the positions down the ballot.
As I’ve learned more and gotten older, I’ve become more aware of my role as a voting citizen. In 2016 I watched helplessly as news reporters eventually announced the election of Donald Trump. I had cast my third party vote confidently aware that my state’s electoral votes would be going to the man who would eventually become president, but hopeful that the rest of the country would vote responsibly.
While the political climate has become the most hostile in my lifetime, I’ve also learned a lot of lessons that keep me hopeful. As we prepare to vote in November, these are the things I believe we need to remember regardless of who is on the ballot.
Consider the needs of your neighbors
Politicians are famous for asking “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The problem with that question is that it encourages people to selfishly look at their own situation and not consider the situation of those around them. The real question that a politician in a fully functioning society should ask is “do you believe the city/state/country is better off today that it was four years ago?” No, we should not make decisions that will intentionally harm us, but we are not all living on our own islands. We are in community and if we want our communities to function and thrive, we need to make sure that it works for everyone.
When we see our communities as interdependent, we understand that what helps our neighbors also helps us. When the American with Disabilities Act required ramps and elevator access for buildings, suddenly parents had a way to get strollers into buildings and people recovering from injuries gained easier access into those same buildings while temporarily in wheelchairs or on crutches.
That is only one example, but it highlights how taking care of the needs of minority populations can actually improve the lives of all Americans, most often in ways that we can’t foresee. Ignoring that reality hurts nearly everyone, eventually.
Remember that real change starts closest to home
So many of the decisions that affect our day-to-day lives are impacted by what is happening in our cities and often states. Our local school boards make decisions about how our schools are run. Our local police force decides how it will conduct itself when officers are out in the community. Our cities control everything from local minimum wage laws to which industries are allowed to thrive.
Clean and safe greenways, sizable parks and green space, efficient public transportation, robust recycling and composting programs, and community zoning are all done at the local level. While the federal government can install programs that encourage local growth in those areas and occasionally help to fund those programs, it is local leadership that makes those changes possible.
When it comes to voting, states are responsible for deciding how they run elections and some states allow local municipalities relative freedom in how they also run local elections. Some of the simplest suggestions for election reform have involved how we run our state and local elections. Some states have organized independent election commissions to de-gerrymander districts, guaranteeing that representation reflects the needs and desires of the people instead of whichever party is in control. Other cities and states are experimenting with rank choice voting, which has been proven in many elections across the country to ensure more civil political races, prevent more extreme candidates from winning, and allow for greater competition outside of the two major parties. In 2020, Maine will be the first state in the union to use RCV for the presidential election, serving as a test group for other states interested in implementing it in their elections.
Historically, some of the biggest political and cultural changes have started at the local and state level (think women’s suffrage as a perfect example). Want to see global change? Start the wheels turning at home.
Stop looking for immediate gratification
Anyone who has been around American politics long enough knows that most of the promises people make when they are running for office end up being forgotten once elected officials are sworn in. At least, that is how it seems to those who were desperately holding onto the hope that those reforms would be put into place immediately after the candidate takes office.
But politics is a messy, complex machine with a lot of moving parts. Most of the promises that politicians make can’t be fulfilled because they don’t have the power to enact those changes on their own, no matter how high up in the government they find themselves. And if they are successful in getting those reforms passed, it often takes months or even years before people start seeing a significant impact on their lives.
We need to stop being short sighted in our goals for our country and start thinking about the long-term impacts of our decisions. Take global climate change, for example. For decades, our state and national governments have made decisions based on short-term economic impact while ignoring scientific data that investigates the potential long-term consequences of those decisions. Working to clean up the environment in the here and now may be expensive and cumbersome, but the eventual outcome means saving money and lives down the road. When we look at decisions and data from the last several decades, decisions that haven’t looked at long-term impact in favor of short-term gains have actually cost companies and individuals significantly more money over the long-term.
When we are concerned about our survival in the here and now, it is difficult to think about the impact of our decisions down the road, but as citizens we need to encourage our neighbors and those we vote for to take into consideration the bigger picture. Change takes time. Improvement takes time. We don’t always get it right on the first try, but we have to allow ourselves the space and grace to keep working at it until we get it right.
When I was a young voter I didn’t pay attention to anything but the president. I didn’t even consider who represented my national interests. I didn’t know the names of my US senators or congressmen. I didn’t know the names of my local state representatives. I didn’t even pay close attention to who was my governor.
I was wrong.
I firmly believe that straight ticket voting is both lazy and unpatriotic. As citizens we are called to use our voice to vote for the people we believe to be the best for the job. We should know what we are voting for and who we are voting for, beyond the letter behind their name.
It took several years, but I finally learned just how important every single elected position is. When we step into the voting booth, we are electing everything from city council members to sheriffs to judges. These are the people who make decisions that impact our daily lives. While COVID-19 has shown us just how important national leadership is in the face of a national disaster, it has also shown us just how much of an impact our county judges, majors, and governors can make in the face of a major crisis.
Do your research, check qualifications, and make sure that each person you vote for is the right person for the job. A county judge’s position on abortion doesn’t matter nearly as much as their position on police brutality. A mayor’s position on the Second Amendment isn’t as important as their relationship with first responders and their crisis response plans.
This is where the most immediate change takes place. Make sure you are electing the right people for the jobs they are applying for.
This is not a once-every-four-years responsibility
While it’s probably a given that we can’t vote in every single opportunity offered to us every year, we should vote whenever we can. Elections happen nearly every year. Just because we aren’t always selecting the president, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the other elections. At the very least, we should all participate in mid-term elections (which always includes our representatives and sometimes includes our senators) and primaries for the major races every two years. We get the candidates we select, and not participating in the early stages of the selection process has helped contribute to our increasingly divisive political environment.
Once the election is over, don’t let your elected officials off of the hook. Follow them on social media, write them emails, call their offices, or send them mail through the postal service when the opportunity presents itself. I once sent both of my senators and my representative postcards from a local state park to insist that they remember that they worked for me and the state of Texas, not the president.
I have no problems not voting for an incumbent I originally voted for if they have proven to not be the right person for the job. We wouldn’t need to have discussions about term limits if more people actually bothered to insist that their elected officials do what they were elected to do and vote them out when they don’t, even if that means voting for someone from a different party for a single election. Our elected officials work for us. It’s time we start insisting that they remember that.
Don’t get left behind
At least a third of Generation Z has turned 18 and earned the right to vote. Millennials are pushing 40 and entering public office. As a member of the Oregon Trail micro-generation, I’ve watched my peers as we’ve grappled with the world that we grew up in and the lightbulb moments that we’ve experienced over the last decade. And as someone who has spent most of my teaching career hanging out with Millennials and now Gen Z, I can say with absolute certainty that they are ready to take on the world.
All together, these two generations of young Americans have watched their politicians ignore global climate change while hurricanes of increasing ferocity have attacked their homes and increasingly dangerous fires have threatened their communities and impacted their health. They have spent twenty years begging for reasonable gun legislation to protect themselves and then their own school-aged children. They have watched church leadership preach morality from the pulpit and hold up a morally corrupt president.
They watched their finances or their parents’ finances collapse during two financial crises only to see big banks and corporations get bailed out while they struggled to keep their homes. They were told that a college education was the way to get ahead and have spent years drowning in debt that keeps them from owning their own homes and starting families.
And all of that is only the tip of the iceberg.
They are informed, hurting, angry, and they are ready for change. And instead of their middle-aged parents and older grandparents listening to them, they have just been told that they don’t know what they are talking about and to wait their turn.
But they don’t have to wait for those adults to do something because they are adults. Regardless of political persuasion, they are ready for change, and if older Americans don’t listen up and invite them to take their place at the table for conversation, they are going to make their own adult table and leave the older adults behind.
As Americans we have watched the pendulum swing higher and higher to the left and the right with each election cycle. It has left many of us in the middle out of the conversation, asking what we need to do to get our politicians to listen to us. The answer is simple: active citizenship. Our founding fathers and mothers fought for a country with an imperfect system, but they believed that future generations would keep working to figure it out. For a long time, people did keep tinkering with the experiment in an effort to make a “more perfect union.” But then we got lazy, believing that the machine would keep working without our maintenance and care.
Now we are being called on to be active participants instead of complaining from the sidelines. Far too many people have fought for us to have the right to do so. It’s time for us to do better by ourselves and our neighbors.
Our country’s future may depend on it.