I’ve often heard it said that voting is our highest civic duty. I would argue instead, that it is our lowest, as it requires the least from us.
It does not ask that we are informed, although ideally we care enough to be. It does not ask that we are educated, although we should all seek to be. Nor does it ask that we put the needs of the country ahead of our own, although perhaps we should. It does not ask that we all agree — in fact, it serves to measure the degree to which we do not.
There are higher civic duties — like service to this nation, whether in uniform as a member of the Armed Forces or local services like our first responders; or in community work like the volunteers working the polls today; or through the consideration of public good in the choices we make about our professional pursuits. The higher civic duties lie in giving up our time for benefit of causes bigger than us, or our money through charity and fundraising when it could be used for our personal wants. We find the higher civic duties in our prioritization of American issues, of those that affect us and those that don’t, through what we choose to watch, read, share, and discuss. Compared to these, voting is the task that requires the least.
Yet, it is possibly the most consequential.
No matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other defining piece of your identity, there was someone who came before you to fight for your right to cast a ballot. In no time in our history have more Americans held this special right. As a black man, I know of my race’s champions. But at the American common root are those who shed their blood in 1776 with the hope of building a more perfect union. They sought to form a nation where the government derived its power from the governed. This novel idea, our experiment in democracy, is tested every time the voting booths open. They did not envision our electorate to look as it does, but our diversity makes us capable of solving increasingly complex issues. The success of our experiment depends on us in these times when it we are increasingly at risk of domestic implosion.
In the midst of an American awakening to the struggles of those who have been disregarded or undervalued, we hold the power to incrementally change the direction of our course. The efforts of suppression are a testament to the power of a single vote. And through your single vote, you actively choose to stand for something. It is those who either out of ignorance or complacency choose to sit on the sidelines that pose the greatest threat to our experiment. It is those willing benchwarmers, who are not only dismissive of the needs of others, but of their own — not realizing how the choice to abstain affects their personal livelihood.
The higher civic duty is to vote with a conscientiousness of what others and the nation need, because it through that mindset that we all benefit. But all I can ask is that at a minimum, you vote for yourself. In these times of division, we can find unity in the choice to be engaged.
I can encourage you to vote out of hope rather than fear, to vote with foresight rather than frustration, and vote based on principle rather than party, but my only demand is that you simply vote.
“Not voting is not a protest. It is a surrender.” — Keith Ellison