As the lawn signs spring up and mailboxes across the Triangle fill with campaign brochures and fliers, we are reminded that election day is approaching. And yet if history is any guide, only a very few people will exercise their right – and fulfill their responsibility – to vote.
In a democratic system like ours, voting is a responsibility – and not one meant to be exercised only once every four years in a presidential election. Did the “Greatest Generation” really risk their lives so that future generations could simply abdicate the responsibilities central to our democratic process? I doubt it. Were those who marched in Selma 50 years ago seeking only the right to vote for president? No, they wanted a say in who served on the city council or in the mayor’s seat or on the school board and in all the other elected positions.
Whether the decisions are about schools or parks, roads or taxes, most are made by local officials – like those we will be voting for in a matter of days – not those in Washington or even state government.
And it is up to “we the people,” the voters, the men and women, workers and executives, mothers and fathers, the diverse populace whose lives are affected and whose interests the candidates seek to represent, to make the effort to learn about these people, about their beliefs and their vision for the community they seek to govern. Then we must vote, collectively making a decision, entrusting the winner with the responsibility of governing in a way that serves the common good.
I am a long-time American history and government teacher, and years ago I ran for local office. I even did stints as a legislative assistant for both a state senator and a congressman. And I have voted regularly – for candidates of all stripes – for over 40 years. Indeed, any time I have moved, I have been sure to have registering to vote at the top of my “to do” list.
Last year, for the first time, I spent Election Day doing something I had never done before: I worked at the polls. Nothing I have done in politics more affirmed my belief in our system. Taking a day off from work, I volunteered in my local precinct, primarily handing out ballots. Was it exciting? Not really. Repetitive? Yes. Inspiring? Most emphatically yes! I got to see the culminating act of the democratic process firsthand, and it was thrilling.
From the line at the door when the polls opened to the woman who arrived only minutes before the polls closed, excited and relieved that she would have her say, I saw the American people exercising their rights and, frankly, I was proud to be a part of the process.
Indeed, over the course of 13 hours, I saw mothers who pushed strollers, corralled young children, balanced babies and navigated through lengthy ballots in order to have a voice in their children’s future. I saw the elderly in walkers, determined to cast their ballots. It was a cross-section of America. The man who made clear that his vote was his guarantee of a right to complain was complemented by another who patiently waited in line, deflecting the complaints of less-patient companions by wryly observing that he had waited in longer lines for far less important things.
The importance of what they were doing was an unspoken, but ever-present undercurrent of the whole day. Whether the voter was on her way to work or on his way home from the gym, they all knew that this was an action of consequence.
For better or worse, the nature of our system leaves the decision to vote up to each of us as individuals. I will be working at the polls again this year, and I am more excited than ever. I hope my fellow citizens will be there, too. It really does matter!
William H. Pruden III is director of civic engagement at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.