On the eve of a national election, I was shocked to learn that an otherwise educated and aware acquaintance never votes. He had some convoluted argument about how Henry David Thoreau was against voting on the theory that “it only encourages them” and, “no matter who won, it wouldn’t make any difference.”
I could have started the quote game with him. I distinctly remember reading in Civil Disobedience that Thoreau said, “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” I always took it to mean Thoreau was warning against just casting a vote and thinking that you’d done your bit for society. That voting is a starting place, but demanding accountability from government constantly was the next, logical and more important step.
But Thoreau was beside the point. What shocked me is that someone couldn’t be bothered to perform the absolute bare minimum of what our society asks of us. My friend is white and educated and professional, as I am. He’s probably right, no matter who wins, WE will be okay. Our taxes might go up or down. A war might rage, but we won’t be called to fight in it. We’ll go on buying iPods and laptops and watching our TV shows without too much inconvenience. Sort of the equivalent of Thoreau living in his faux woods, yet stepping out to enjoy the spirited conversation and dinner parties of his intellectual friends, protected by the militia and laws of the town whose limits he still lived in and whose maintained roads he travelled on although he refused to pay for them with his tax dollars. Nice to opt out if you can still keep all the privileges.
What I really want to talk about when someone says they can’t be bothered to vote are The Black Church Ladies.
In college, I became involved with a Democratic-backed initiative to help the elderly and those without cars get to polling stations on voting day. One of the areas that most needed those services were the slum areas around the dying mill towns that dot Massachusetts. The seasoned volunteers didn’t really want that duty, so they were more than happy to delegate it to the college students who didn’t know any better. My college friend and I were assigned to work with a predominantly Black church that needed cars and drivers to help their many elderly and poor members get to the decentralized voting places. (I’m always amazed in San Francisco that I walk in the sunshine to my neighbor’s garage and cast my vote. It wasn’t that way in Massachusetts in the 70s. Voting places were at schools in the suburbs and the weather always seemed to be harsh.)
The minister gave us a list and addresses of the “Church Sisters” who needed assistence. In these days before SatNav and Google Maps, we were lucky groups of them had chosen to gather at a few houses and at the church for their rides. It meant fewer hour-long round trips at 30MPH in the sleeting rain. The unexpected benefit was that it meant a chance to listen to these ladies talking among themselves and to us about their voting experiences.
The most amazing thing we discovered when we pulled up to our first stop, was that these ladies were dressed to the nines: church clothes and magnificent hats. This wasn’t just voting, it was a momentous occasion. Once loaded into the van, the ladies began talking about what it used to be like in the South (most were from the African American Diaspora of the 30s and 40s when many Southern Blacks fled Jim Crow Laws for what seemed like better opportunities in the factories and shipyards of the North.) Every one of the ladies knew or knew of someone who had been beaten, harassed or even killed, not just for trying to vote, but sometimes for having been seen with a vote organizer.
The next thing we discovered was that there was a tremendous pride in walking into the polling place. Some of the ladies had canes and walkers. They were happy to let us help them out of the van and negotiate the path to the polling place. But at the door, they all dropped our arms. Damn it, they were going to walk in on their own steam, heads high in magnificent hats and cast their votes under their own power. It was a matter of pride.
The choice that year included Jimmy Carter who many of these women saw as someone who would be attuned to the needs of people like them. But in the end, they were still voting for another White Man. Didn’t make a difference. They had the vote and no one was going to stop them from using it.
After each round of passengers had voted, we were instructed to drop them off at the church where a large pot-luck supper and celebration was planned. Voting day was almost like Thanksgiving Day for a whole community.
So that’s what I think of when anyone tells me they can’t be bothered to vote. I think of those wonderful Black Church Ladies who remembered when they couldn’t vote or were prevented from voting. Who knew people, even relatives, who died because they tried to vote. And after hundreds of years of disenfranchisement from the American system, still had the belief that their votes mattered.
I know the Seventies seem like ancient history to many of you. Things have changed, those scars are healed, right? Nobody, even the Black community looks on voting as such an important act.
I would say you were wrong. Last summer, my niece and I took a cross-country road trip. One stop took us to Memphis and the Civil Rights Museum housed in the motel where Martin Luther King was shot. We were surprised to be surrounded by at least 10 parties of family reunions. (Southern family reunions, especially among African Americans, are a wonder. They get T-shirts made and family members come from hundreds of miles away to participate in what are often three day events.) It seems in the Memphis area, a stop at the Civil Rights Museum is a must.
We surreptitiously tacked ourselves on to groups to overhear what was being said. Church Ladies very much like my Voting Church Ladies were herding grandchildren through the exhibits and adding personal commentary: “I remember when this happened. I was with your grandfather at Selma. Our neighbor was lynched.”
It took me a moment to realize that these Church Ladies were not MY Church Ladies. They were probably the daughters of those Church Ladies. Which meant the personal lessons of sufferage were thriving and being passed on actively through the generations. I’m hoping most of the little kids I saw that day will come back to Memphis when they are fifty and take their grandchildren through the exhibits, recounting tales from their elders. And I hope they’ll be telling those grandkids that they remember when the first African American President was elected. I think they will.
This is a long post to share with you the best Political Science lesson I ever learned. Those Church Ladies taught me never to take my vote for granted — even though I never had to struggle for it. For those who suffered or even died for the right of enfranchisement, you MUST cast your vote. And do it in an informed thoughtful manner. It’s the least effort that citizenship requires of you, except it may be the most important requirement.
Those Church Ladies didn’t quote Lyndon Johnson to me, but they had high regard for him. I think he may have said it best:
“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Image at top left from Google Images and inmagine.com
Fantastic story… I have always voted, and have taken my daughter to the polls with me every time. Once she was no longer an infant, I loved explaining the process to her and reinforcing how important it is to cast your vote.
She’s 16 now, and is so bummed out that she can’t take part in this year’s election. She is, however, going to spend Election Day canvassing/volunteering for her school’s “Barackstars” group! I think that is quite a worthy reason to be excused from classes for the day!
Ahh Lisa, it seems we can never manage to agree to disagree.
I somewhat resent your implication that I don’t vote because “I can’t be bothered to vote”. I choose not to vote because I firmly believe that it’s a deeply immoral action, akin to an act of violence, in the current and recent history of the US government.
A vote for either major party candidate is a vote for someone who has openly lied in their campaign. A vote for -any- candidate is also a vote of support and validation for the same system that decided Guantanamo Bay was a good idea. Voting also validates the system that not only inappropriately reacted to the whole 9/11 event, but in effect created it. A vote in the US system also endorses the idea that one can declare war against ideals such as ‘drugs’ or ‘terror’ or ‘homelessness’ or ‘unemployment’ – with no clear idea (or care) of what victory or defeat would even look like. A vote for a US president endorses allowing people with power to wage irrational wars because ‘god told them to’. A vote cast for a US president endorses the idea that the heightened airport security is somehow ‘effective’ and ‘useful’ rather than a silly diversion from what is really important. A vote for either major candidate is a vote for our nuclear power crazed stepchild Israel as well. Worried about nukes in Iran? Not nearly as worried as I am about the nukes we gave to Israel.
Lets also not forget that a vote for either of the major party candidates is a vote for someone who has twice voted for the ‘patriot act’. Both of the major party candidates also have plans to expand that Orwellian “Department of Homeland Security” that by definition protects us from ‘terror’ and ourselves. Shouldn’t Obama be promising to abolish this monstrosity if he wins, instead of strengthening it? Perhaps it is true that no leader will willingly weaken the system that put him into power.
Of course, the “Get out the vote” mantra always spouted in voting years seems ike a facist rallying cry. Are all the apethetics really likely to get out and vote because of vague television ads between their ‘reality’ shows, or are such ads really used to build emotional brands and polarize and affirm the already voting public? (No, really, -your vote does matter – no matter how much it seems like it doesn’t! And you thought you were powerless and oppressed, you silly citizen you.) It seems to me that countries that have laws enforcing mandatory voting still had the same problems that the US does, even with 98% voting rates. Didn’t the old USSR often brag about it’s near 100% voter turnout, and how it made a mockery of the US turnout? If the US ever did institute a mandatory voting law, I would seriously consider going to jail over the issue.
Additionally, what’s so ‘wrong’ about Bush being in power? Surely if around 50% of the voting population wanted him in then are they not partially accountable for the actions of the person they put into power? How could it possibly be the the fault of non-voters who gave power to anyone? If more people voted in equal random distribution, the turnout would still mathematically be approximately the same.
Politicians and systems have no power unless people give it to them by supporting them through voting or other means.
In a sense, I feel I do cast my ‘whole vote’ by not voting. I am not ‘apathetic’ as you seem to suggest, but am rather active in my determination not to vote. I know more of the candidates history, voting records and likely candidates for their cabinets than the average voting American, (who probably only thinks the cool stylized ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ signs they see plastered around town sound like good ideals to vote for – or can’t decide whether they should vote for the black guy or the woman).
Enough of me for now,
One other thing, since you didn’t like my Thoreau quotes on democracy and voting, how about some from Franklin?
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
– Benjamin Franklin, 1759
or perhaps Adams:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
– John Adams (1814)
or even the US Army training manual for the early part of the 20th century. (You know, the US Army, part of the executive branch of government…)
A government of the masses. Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of direct expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic… negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it is based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Result is demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.”
— U. S. Army Training Manual No. 2000-25 (1928-1932)
Its after midnight so that means that it is the start of what I am sure will be a day that is taught about for generations that will survive my humble existence. I cannot sleep. Who needs it.
Like Lisa’s church ladies, I am enveloped in the significance of what this day means. The meaning of this day is multi-faceted. It means different things to different peoples.
I am most touched by what it means to those who are no longer with us. People who like John Lewis, were pelted with stones as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I am remembering four little girls who spent their last breath at a Birmingham church. There are many others, but I am most touched by the memory of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
More than anything else, I hope that somehow they are able to witness that what they were a part of lead to this day.
All across this nation, church ladies and old men who remember how we got to this day will be casting their own ballot. I only wish that our young people had a sense of what that ballot means to them. I wish that our young people realized the massive price that was paid so that they could cast their own ballot.
I have friends who don’t understand. Black and white. They tell me that the candidacy of Barack Obama shows how far Black people have come. I do understand and therefore I disagree with them. There have always been Black people who were educated and prosperous. Even during America’s darkest days there were Black doctors, lawyers, educators, slave owners, governors, lawmen, authors, inventors, entrepreneurs ad infinitum. No, because I understand what today means, I am aware that Barack Obama’s candidacy does not reflect how far Black People have come. Indeed, Obama’s candidacy reflects how far our nation has come.
And on this day, while I am proud to be a Black man, I am far, far more proud to be an American. Not an African American, but an American.
I’d kept you anonymous, but you’ve outed yourself.
Winston Churchill said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”
The system is imperfect, but it’s all we have. Best to work to improve it, which is probably best done if we all participate.
I firmly believe Cheney, Bush and the cynical branch of the GOP thought they could get away with the crimes they’ve committed because they assumed the American public just wasn’t going to pay attention. They aren’t parsing out the non-voters and separating the “Conscientious Objectors” from the “Can’t Be Bothereds”. To them it all looks like apathy and they think they can get away with murder — literally.
I think if 80% of the voters suddenly surged to the polls, politicians might have a different attitude.
what a wonderful post. I’m proud to live in a state that typically has an 80% turn out. We walked to our polling place & met up with neighbor after neighbor either walking there or just returning