I spent thirty years as a dual citizen of Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica. However for the latter twelve years, I lived as an immigrant in the United States. In those years, I experienced four very memorable presidential elections. I moved to this country in September 2000, two months before Bush v. Gore. I graduated in 2004, five months before Bush v. Kerry. I lived near Harlem in 2008 when the nation elected its first black president, and in his hometown of Chicago in 2012 when the nation elected him again.
For 13 years, I sat on the election sidelines. So immediately after becoming a U.S. Citizen in June 2013, I did the one thing I have been waiting for over a decade to do. I registered to vote. On March 12, 2014, at the age of 31, I voted in my first governmental election – the state primary elections in Illinois.
What Is Law Day ?
Today is May 1, Law Day. Today, the country remembers the principles of government under law. This Law Day, the American Bar Association has chosen the theme: American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Counts.
I strongly encourage you to read this excellent ABA guide to Law Day that discusses the history of the right to vote. Of the many interesting statistics, this stands out to me the most: “In the 2012 presidential election, 57.5% of eligible voters nationwide participated . . . more than 4 in 10 eligible voters do not participate in presidential elections, which have the highest turnout rates.”
What were the voter turnout rates from the last election?
42.5% of this country did not vote in the 2012 presidential elections. Many were likely discouraged by long lines and wait times. Some may have been disenfranchised by state voting laws. A few may not have even known it was Election Day. But I’m guessing the majority of them simply did not want to waste time going down to the polling booths to cast a single vote that wouldn’t make a difference in who won or lost.
Back in 2005, the authors of Freakonomics looked at whether a single vote has ever made a difference in an election. Citing a study of more than 56,000 legislative elections since 1868, they found that only 7 state elections, and 1 federal election, were decided by a single vote. Yes, every single vote is counted, but no single vote is determinative. The authors noted that voting exacts a cost – in time, effort, lost productivity – with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your “civic duty.” So if that’s true, why vote?
They concluded that people vote because of societal expectations to do so. According to the authors, there’s a certain social cache to going to the voting booth and having friends and colleagues see you vote, and later being able to tell friends and colleagues that you voted.
That might be true but that’s not why I vote. Why do I vote? I vote because that sense of “civic duty” isn’t vague to me in the least.
See, the fact that I can vote is a truly remarkable thing. Blacks weren’t allowed to vote until 1870. Women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. And it wasn’t until 1965 when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that many of the state-imposed barriers to voting were finally removed. (Interestingly, non-citizens in certain states could vote in federal elections up until 1926).
My right to vote is one that many have fought and died for. Because of that struggle, I can do what millions of blacks could not. I can do what millions of women could not. I can do what millions around the world still cannot. After centuries of denial, the Constitution of the United States gives me – Michelle Ann Silverthorn – the right to vote for someone to represent me. What a disservice I pay to history if I choose to forfeit my right.
But it’s not only the history of the struggle that propels me to the polls. It’s also the history of this country, the one I signed up for on June 13, 2013. On that day, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. I can do that by participating in my democracy. I can vote. I can run for office. I can write to my congressman. I can campaign. I can raise money. I can protest. I can participate in my democracy and it is to my eternal discredit if I choose not to do so because I just can’t bother and I really don’t think it makes a difference.
So why do I vote? Here’s why. I vote because my American citizenship means more than a U.S. passport. I vote because I believe in the ideals of a democratic society. And I vote because of the million million invisible souls, long forgotten to history, who stand at the polls behind me, and applaud.