The older I get, the less surprised I am by human behavior. Even though I cannot say exactly why, there are two things that surprise and disappoint me the most. The first is the number of people who, for whatever reasons, die intestate (without having made a will). Unfortunately, many of my relatives, close friends, acquaintances, and other people who look like me, cannot seem to find time to take care of this most basic personal and legal business necessity. The second equally inexplicable surprise to me is the number of people who believe voting, in any election—primary or general, local, or national—is useless. Whether in the case of completing a will or voting, research suggests that increasing numbers of educated (or degreed) people are abstaining in increasing numbers from one or both of these basic activities.
As we approach the 2022 midterm elections, I cannot ever recall seeing so much negative political advertising on either side of the political aisle. It seems to be everywhere: in newspapers, on television, billboards, and social media. Nor have I ever been so bombarded with requests for financial contributions from candidates all over the country, not just those who are running for office in my state of residence, congressional district, or local precinct. The message is always the same: “my opponent is supported by dark money” or, “we have a donor who is willing to match all gifts three for one if you make a contribution by midnight tonight.” No matter the candidate or the position for which they are running, the sky is always falling, or so it seems. Of course, as someone who believes profoundly in the importance of voting, and who favors more progressive candidates, I must admit that I often take the bait and find myself contributing to candidates all over the country. At the conclusion of the 2020 election, I celebrated when all the candidates to whom I made a financial contribution won, save one!
Every year we are told by leaders from both major U. S. political parties, and candidates too, that that year’s election is the most consequential ever. In the past, I have considered such assertions to be mostly hyperbole, designed to incite people to contribute financially and to vote for candidates. However, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and the violent insurrection by election deniers on January 6, 2021, I have concluded that the 2022 midterm elections may indeed be the most consequential over the past fifty years. There’s more on the ballot than a collection of partisan or independent candidates seeking office. Truth, history, integrity, democracy, civility, gun violence, equity and equality, diplomacy, leadership, the environment and the economy, security, P-16 education, immigration, healthcare, student loan forgiveness, HBCU funding, reproductive rights, voting rights, and congressional redistricting, among a host of other critical issues, are all on the ballot. Whether we vote or not, and who we vote for, has monumental consequences.
Recently, while trying to convince a lifelong non-voter to register and vote, the person responded by saying that they didn’t vote because they didn’t believe their vote counted, and that all elected officials are crooks anyway! My response was this: “If your vote doesn’t count, why do you think candidates spend so much money trying to convince you to vote for them, or why do some legislators pass so many bills restricting voting conditions and times?” Ignoring my questions, the prospective voter asked, “Why do you vote?” While we may all have different rationales for voting, mine are simple and straightforward.
I vote for five reasons:
1. While growing up in the Deep south during America’s apartheid era, my parents could not vote without paying a poll tax and passing a racist literacy test, reserved exclusively for Blacks. I vote to acknowledge and honor the sacrifices made by my ancestors, civil rights leaders, advocates, and activists, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice to give me for the right to vote. I dare not denigrate their memory or sacrifice!
2. Freedom and democracy are on the ballot, and I will not undermine either by sitting out any election. To me, voting is a prerequisite and a privilege of citizenship!
3. Not voting is a sign of civic silence, and I want my voice to be heard, whether the candidates I vote for win or not. Too often silence is interpreted as a sign of agreement, and I would not want my silence to be construed with supporting political perspectives that I view as an anathema to democracy, equity, and equality.
4. I believe in the collective power of individual votes, and I want to be included in the number of people who pool their votes and their voices to make a difference.
5. I want to practice what I profess with respect to my belief in the importance of civic engagement. Equally important, I believe that the sustainability of American-style democracy is strengthened when we take time to exercise our constitutional right to vote.
I had the honor of meeting the late civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who in 1965 nearly died from a vicious beating at the hands of state troopers and police in a march that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” He once said, “The vote is precious. It is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.” Whether we have one reason or many for voting, and whether we can articulate them or not, two things are clear. First, there are consequences of not voting: some are positive, and some are negative, but they are seldom if ever neutral. Second, voting is an opportunity to say to current and succeeding generations that we not only stood for something, but we worked to make it happen. Voting is the one thing we can do, no matter which side of the political aisle we align with. It is an expression of love for and gratitude to those, like John Lewis and so many others, on whose shoulders we stand. It is what we must do for our democracy, which we have seen can be both fragile and resilient—and which must never be taken for granted.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is a veteran higher education administrator and chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University.