“I’m too busy.”
“Don’t really know enough about the candidates.”
“I missed the registration deadline. Again.”
I’ve heard many excuses for not voting. For years, I was the one making them.
Lots of people miss an election here and there. Yet if memory serves, I sat on the sidelines for the better part of presidencies, governorships, and mayoralties. I turned 18 just before starting my freshman year of college. Even though my school was in the same state where I was born and raised, I never cast a single vote during those years.
Yes, I was swamped with classes, writing for my college paper, and a full social life. Yet it’s not as if I couldn’t find the time to register and vote, if I’d been so inclined. I just wasn’t. And that inexplicable stasis continued well into my 20s.
Even now, I can’t recall a valid reason for my years as a nonvoter. That’s because there isn’t one. If you are eligible and able to vote, there is simply no logical reason not to do it.
Recently, New York Magazine ran a feature entitled “12 Young People on Why They Probably Won’t Vote.” Their answers ranged from a preference for being “an informed nonvoter” to how the ease of voting made it “seem sort of alienating and anticlimactic.” Another person said he tried to register in 2016, but missed the deadline. “I hate mailing stuff; it gives me anxiety,” he said.
Years from now, they’ll hopefully recognize their answers as rubbish.
Certainly, my own reasons were. Like many young professionals, my immediate post-college life was a series of states, cities, and apartments. Every time I settled somewhere new, I was faced with another to-do list of needs (doctor, hairdresser) and wants (bookstores, record stores). I always found time for what mattered to me. Anticipating a short stay when I moved to Florida, I never even got a driver’s license there; why would I bother to vote?
It’s not as if I didn’t know the issues or candidates. I was a reporter at the state’s largest paper, but my attention to politics extended only as far as the workplace. That was a far cry from how I was raised. Politics were so vigorously debated in my home that I called my family “the Black Caucus.” (Still do.) On Election Day, I occasionally went with my mother to our local polling station. It was quiet and staid, and, unlike driving a car or life without a curfew, it wasn’t one of the benefits of adulthood that especially interested me.
After I left home, my mother would sometimes ask me on election days if I’d voted. I would lie.
Of course, I felt guilty. Yet as the years passed, I was also haunted by the weight of those who’d died for something I callously ignored.
I’d read countless news accounts of African-American men and women who were shot, beaten, lynched, or forced to flee their homes because they wanted to vote or helped others to register. They knew what awaited them at the polls, and they still showed up because they understood voting as central to what it means to be an American.
If voting were unimportant, racists wouldn’t have killed to preserve it for white people alone. That’s why, for many black people, voting isn’t just a right; it’s a sacred privilege paid for with centuries of flesh and blood.
When I moved to Massachusetts, I finally registered. There was no great epiphany. I wish I could say I felt overjoyed the first time I voted. Mostly I felt like a dope for having left democracy for so long in the hands of others, especially those whose values threatened my own.
Now I’m a voting evangelist. (Yes, I voted early.) I don’t just do it for myself. I vote for every person who died to secure that right (now under constant attack), and all those still fighting against blatant Republican malfeasance to perserve it.
Looking back, I suspect that youth had masked for me the fact that elections have consequences. Anyone who’s still in doubt need only flash back to two Novembers ago. Believe the hype — this is the most important election of your lifetime.
Be an adult. Be an American. Vote.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.