Ensuring a legacy of strong women voters

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The day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the largest parade the Capitol had ever seen marched to the White House. About 8,000 women demanded that the right to vote be extended to women, and an estimated half a million people watched the procession. This was but the most visible moment in a long struggle that saw women protesting, picketing, enduring ridicule and even being force fed.

How is it that barely a century later so many just decide to sit this out?

In presidential election years such as 2008 and 2012, only 54 percent of eligible voters usually head to the polls – and that’s great compared with midterm elections where less than 40 percent participate. Barely more than a third of eligible adults vote in a country that prides itself on showing the world how a democracy is supposed to work. Why is that?

According to the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, in the 2008 presidential election, 72 percent of registered women turned out to vote – outvoting men by 2.5 percentage points. However, in the following midterm election in 2010, female participation dropped to a depressing 42 percent.

“But individual votes don’t really matter!” We learn so much about the Electoral College that we think our votes don’t count. But in local and state elections, the margin of victory can be as few as 46 votes. That’s one Applebee’s dining room away from a red or blue seat in our General Assembly.

I recently sat on a panel of very smart women and discussed why there was such a dramatic drop-off in female participation from the 2008 presidential election to the 2010 midterm. One key point was that it is much more difficult to be informed during midterm and off-year elections. There is so much election fervor during a presidential election that you can’t escape the deluge of ads, debates and press coverage. Once the presidential election is over, the attention almost immediately turns to the next presidential election cycle and not to the all-important midterms that decide many of our U.S. Senate and House seats – or, more importantly, our state and local leaders who face election every two years. We have to do better.

Whatever a person’s political persuasion, there are plenty of organizations keeping score. Just open up the Google machine and search North Carolina General Assembly scorecard (or report card) and find a host of news outlets and special interest organizations that have gone to a lot of trouble and expense to report how representatives voted on a variety of issues.

When I was a little girl, my mom took me to the polls with her. I remember we waited in line and entered this magical booth with a curtain and a giant lever. Mom had to pick me up to flip the little levers that actually cast her votes. It was all very mechanical sounding, and it reinforced to a little girl what a big deal this was. I couldn’t wait until I was grown and could cast my own votes.

When I became a mother, I took my daughter to the voting booth as well and, even though the machines were a little different, she “helped” me, too. Now we discuss issues, and I remind her to go vote when I know she’s busy. I wish my mother were still here and that I could discuss current events with her. She would be happy knowing she started a legacy of strong women using the ballot box to shape their destinies, but she would be disappointed that there are so many out there who stay home, even though countless people suffered so they could control their futures.

Valerie Evans, an assistant professor of computer information systems at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, is a volunteer with Women AdvaNCe.