Updated: Jun 20, 2021
I work at a college and so turning 21 is a milestone I hear about quite often. Everyone debates the celebratory ritual that is "turning 21.” It has always struck me that 16 and 21 always get the attention when 17 and 18 mark less sexy milestones like being able to buy tobacco product, serve in the armed forces, and voting. The first presidential election where I was of legal age to vote was Bush vs. Gore in 2000. I was in college and so I sent in my absentee ballot along with my other fellow citizens. I hadn’t done any research. I barely paid attention to the debates. I didn’t even have a political party affiliation. I just voted what I thought my parents would have voted. The controversy surrounding the ballot tally of that election was my first taste of intrigue into the voting process.
Recently, my husband and I saw the movie, Selma. It was a powerful movie that I probably will never watch again because the content was so heavy. Movies that depict actual historic events are always haunting to me. Alongside of the powerful themes of race, faith, and community is the foundational issue of voting rights. In an early scene when MLK Jr. met with President LBJ, he gave a striking assessment of voter injustice. He pinpointed the right to vote as a critical value whereby change is enacted, communities are shaped, and justice is delivered. If you can’t vote, then you can’t elect officials that will change laws for your constituency, and if you are not a registered voter, you cannot sit on a jury where your peers are being tried in the justice system. In short, the civil rights act and desegregation were not enough to begin enacting change for the black minorities. Without the right to vote, they were still voiceless. To this end, the minorities in the south (Selma in particular) were willing to organize and suffer painful persecution, even death, to make sure this right was properly legislated and protected.
This fundamental value of democracy is lost on the new generations. We just don’t give a flying rats fanny about our right to vote. In fact, I heard a friend recently say that her husband was considering un-registering so that he would not have to incur jury duty responsibilities.
Young adults are not great about voting.
According to the U.S. Census, 18-24 year-olds have participated less and less through the
last 13 presidential elections. We had a few spikes here and there, but over-all they are are lowest voter turnout that has dropped from 50.9% in 1964 to 38% in 2012.
We don’t value it.
We don’t fight for it.
We don’t even show up.
For about 5 years I worked as a paid volunteer for the Nashville-Davidson Election Commission. I worked for District 5 in East Nashville which is an older part of town still largely inhabited by lower income minorities and the occasional white hipster. It is a part of town where families have lived for generations going back to the days when blue-collar meant middle class. Our next door neighbor was 90 when we moved in and she used to tell us stories of her children growing up in the neighborhood. She talked us through the glory days of the neighborhood when trees grew in the medians and kids rode their bikes. Then she described the sharp downturn when the area became crime-ridden and property values plummeted. By the time we moved in, we were the only non-minority neighbors on our street. We lived three streets behind the high school Oprah Winfrey attended. We watched the neighborhood evolve in the 7 years we lived there and even today, the old guard is still pushing back on gentrification. In my polling station, we watched as the older generation of African-american families dutifully came out, come hell or high water, to vote in every election - whether local, federal, special, or run-off. They would tell me stories of how important this was to them and how it was their reserved pleasure to wear that “I Voted” sticker. I don’t know if I ever really understood them until I saw Selma. It always blew my mind how few 20s and 30-somethings of any race walked through the door of my polling station. We have certainly lost something here.
At this point, I’m sure you are clutching hard to your old standby arguments. I’ve heard them from all my friends.
“I just don’t like any of the candidates."
“I never know who to vote for."
“It doesn’t really matter if I vote or not. My area is so Republican/Democrat that it just doesn’t matter if I vote."
“Politics make me uneasy anyway."
I get it.
As for me, I’m a conservatively liberal moderate.
I don’t have a party affiliation anymore. I’m not even independent. I’m just a concerned person who realized that I can’t really complain if I don’t show up to vote. And I get that it is hard work. Because I am not at liberty to just check a row of boxes marked R or D, I have to actually do research on every candidate. What further complicates this was the realization that it is actually LOCAL politics that most strongly affected my situations. Now, I can’t just eyeball the presidential candidates, I have to wade through mayors, governors, state reps, federal reps, school board, and district reps. If you don’t think District Representatives are a big deal, let me just tell you that I survived two district elections in my precinct and they are the ONLY two elections where we had to call the cops cause folks were fighting in the parking lot. You explain that one to me.
Doing the research also meant that I had to figure where I stood on these issues and which issues were important to me. So, I feel you friends. It can be work. You know what else is work, writing your representatives. The first challenge is even knowing who the crap your representatives are. Next is taking the time to send your opinion. And herein lies my biggest plea to get out and vote - our politicians DO NOT CARE to herald the voices of “noncitizen” (that is census language for nonvoters). They won’t champion our causes because they can read the stats just like the other literates. No vote = no voice. My husband and I had this talk a few years ago and concluded that even if you show up to vote and do a write-in, it at least sends the message that you are there to vote and that none of these yahoos is worth putting in office. You can write in Mickey Mouse for all I care, but if you don’t show up at the polls, no politician in their right mind (oxymoron) would give one thought to the issues of young adults.
Selma reminds us that there was a time when people fought for their right to vote and sit on a jury. I agree that these things can be a hassle but being part of semi-democracy means that this is what we sign up for. Any run-of-the-mill dictatorship, monarchy, or top-down socialist experiment will gladly revoke your place at the table and tell you what’s good for you. But in this country, we still have a sliver of understanding that without this right we would be helpless, frustrated, and highly pissed off.
So here are my remedies for easing back into your citizenship:
1) Eliminate the popular media outlets from your research sources. To learn about a politician in this day and age, just go to their website. Usually their stance and issues are all laid out nice and pretty.
2) Find your local “watch dog,” grass roots groups that keep a critical eye on the man. Most cities and states have groups that work separate from the politics to keep an eye on the policies and people who make them. If you want to examine the critical viewpoints of your favorite politician or party (and I advise everyone to do this), these groups help give that 3D perspective.
3) Follow your politicians on Twitter. One of the easiest ways to learn what your representatives stand for and what they are up to is to follow their twitter feeds.
4) Finally, talk to people you trust and are in good relationship with and ask them their views and perspectives. We don’t have to be afraid of political conversations, we just have to be better listeners. Don’t make it a point to insert your opinions into these conversations just yet. Use these times to listen and take an opportunity to truly see things from their side. This offers the ability to learn our own prejudices and preconceived notions. It helps us examine and tighten up our own stance on politics. Ask questions of people and then hear them out.
In conclusion, the message Selma brings us about our basic right to vote is still true today. It is a sharp reminder of what we have collectively taken for granted. Politics and our justice system are certainly far from perfect. We have all been disillusioned by stories of corruption and partisan culture wars. In some ways, it seems easier just to shut our eyes and ignore these things around us. Yet, the only way any change will happen is if more and more citizens take up their rights and involve themselves in the major decisions that affect our communities. It will take an attitude change as well. We need to teach future generations that voting and even jury duty are actually a privilege of our system. In so many countries around the world, these basic rights are not available to people. We can be proud to be a part of our systems and have a voice. It’s about time we began a new trend in how we reflect our citizenship.