By Kate Robinson
It was mid-September, and I was engaged in a political discussion with a friend. After a few minutes of casually talking about current events, I asked her which presidential candidate she planned on voting for in November. What she said next stopped me in my tracks: “Oh, I’m not voting.” She said it so confidently, almost as if she felt proud to not be filling out a ballot. I was absolutely shocked. How could she not vote? As far as I was concerned, voting in your first election is a milestone. Now that we were finally eligible, why would she waste this chance, especially with such a critical election just months away? Trying to hide my surprise (and annoyance), I quickly asked her why. Without skipping a beat, my friend looked at me dead in the eye and said, “Because I don’t know anything.”
We are taught from a young age that voting is the most important way to prove that we are good citizens. Our elementary school teachers touted it every year during civics lessons. In fact, mine even went so far as to hold school-wide presidential elections. I clearly remember shuffling down to the library with my first-grade class in 2008 to cast my “ballot” for either Barack Obama or John McCain. I did it again in fifth grade for the 2012 presidential election. While this was something that the school just wanted to have fun with, it left a lasting impression on me. I grew up believing that we are expected to vote when we are of-age. I always assumed that everyone did it, and I never questioned the alternative.
Once I entered high school, my prior assumptions regarding voting became more solidified as I listened to my teachers passionately speak about the importance of voting. I read tweet after tweet from celebrities urging their fans that they must – no matter what – vote. This year, it seems as if every website I go to, every commercial I hear, and every email that appears in my inbox is telling me that I should register. There was a time when I would have enthusiastically agreed. After the conversation with my friend, not so much.
It is ingrained in us to believe that the way to get the best candidates in office is to increase voter turnout. But, what if we instead stopped caring about this number? Maybe voter turnout would go down from its high of almost 60 percent in 2016, but is that such a bad thing? No, because it ensures that without people controlling who is registering or setting goals for a fixed turnout rate, we are truly getting passionate, educated voters.
More importantly, a quality-over-quantity result would send a message to our politicians: “We have done our research, we know what your positions are, and we are going to hold you accountable to meeting your campaign promises or we will vote you out next cycle.” They will feel more obligated to meet the needs of the people because they know that they won based on their platform and what the voters truly cared about. If the voters were passionate enough to vote them in, then they will be passionate enough to vote them out.
When just about everyone casts a ballot, though, politicians know that most of the people do not really care whether they are in office or not, they are just voting because they are told to. And the politicians know this because every year they are the ones who spend millions of dollars on voter registration efforts targeted at people who should not be voting at all. Former Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg spent between $15 and $20 million this year to register 500,000 new voters in swing states that President Trump narrowly won in 2016, such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet the media portrays this as nothing more than citizens who love civic engagement. If only. Anybody who has to be reminded by organizations or celebrities to vote is nothing more than a pawn in the elites’ game to put the “right” people in office. And we listen to them.
As a student at Chapman University, I am surprised at how far our school is going to make sure we all cast ballots. The Civics Engagement Team set a goal for a 100 percent voter turnout rate this November, and I cannot help but wonder how many people on our campus have been pressured into voting without being fully prepared to make informed decisions. What if there are people like my friend (who knew so little about politics that she thought we have to vote separately for vice president)?
Whether Chapman realizes it or not, there are uneducated, indifferent people like this who they are enabling to vote. I respect Chapman for its efforts to get students civically engaged, and I want the university to still provide resources to help students register if they approach them voluntarily, but I do not believe this initiative is the best way to do this. Sometimes, choosing not to vote is as much of an empowered statement as voting is. Informed voters may choose to opt out of voting because they do not feel comfortable supporting either candidate.
For so long, the majority of Americans have believed that we, as citizens of the United States, have the right to vote. This is a false claim, as the Constitution does not explicitly state this. Yes, there are amendments that permitted certain groups (minorities, slaves, and women) to vote, but this did not give them the right; rather, it just allows them to. The Supreme Court echoed this in its decision on the Bush v Gore case, stating that there is, “no federal constitutional right to vote.” Instead, each state is able to determine how it wants to conduct elections, which is why some states are more lenient than others when it comes to casting a ballot. For example, prisoners in Maine can vote, but those in Wisconsin cannot until they complete their probation. It is also why voter identification laws vary by state, some stricter than others.
Since voting is not technically a right, then it must be a privilege. It is something that you earn the right to exercise by being an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. Just as easily as it is granted, it can be taken away.
Having the privilege of something as sacred and powerful as voting means that we should take it seriously. After all, there was a time in our country when people did. After church on Sunday in the 1840s, Americans spent Monday traveling across unpaved roads in slow-moving buggies in order to make it to the polls by Tuesday.
Today, we complain about having to drive just fifteen minutes down the street to get to a polling station (that is, if we go at all). Most of us are so apathetic that we need ballots mailed to us, even though there are no great challenges to us being able to vote in-person. This has turned ‘Election Day’ into ‘Election Month.’ Unlike the Americans before us who dressed up to go to the polls and made Election Tuesday a very special occasion, we now rely on voter registration drives and incentives, such as “I Voted” stickers to encourage us to go to the polls. We have stooped so low that we need to have a National Voter Registration Day to remind us to engage in this privilege.
We wonder why the politicians we elect are crooked, lazy, and out of touch with their constituents. Maybe it is because we encourage the wrong types of people to vote through these flawed tactics. For example, pop star Billie Eilish holds voter registration drives as fans are literally walking into a concert venue likely drunk, high, and most certainly not in a political state of mind. In other words, it is probably not the best place to recruit people deciding the fate of our country.
I want to see people register to vote when they decide to themselves. I want to see people actually take the time to read up on candidates and issues. If politicians and celebrities care so much about civic engagement, then they should use their influence to help educate the constituency. I want to see more in-person polling stations in order to reduce the number of people who vote by mail. Lastly, I want to see schools educate their students about how to be informed and think critically for themselves.
Collectively, we need to change the culture surrounding voting and remind people that it is still a choice and not a chore; that it is a privilege, not a right; that it has effects. And, if not executed correctly, voting can be harmful to the soul of our country and the people who live here.
Kate Robinson is a freshman at Chapman University majoring in Strategic and Corporate Communication.