“TThe weather for voting is terrible, “said the character at the beginning of Jose Saramago’s seeing. In this powerful novel, torrential rains cover the streets of the unnamed capital, and no one comes to vote until late in the afternoon. However, counting ballots, polling place workers find that more than 70% are blank. A small number of valid votes is not enough to give the winner, the right party, full legitimacy. (The other parties (the party on the left and the party in the center) get a small percentage of the humiliating votes.) After a period of turmoil, the government exercised the obligations of the citizens and the obligations of the citizens. Organize a new referendum in the hope of exercising. Make an appropriate vote. However, the number of blank votes this time is 83%, pushing the capital into bureaucratic turmoil, media excitement and government conspiracy.
I read Years ago, when I was eating up Saramago’s books one after another, I was hardly breathtaking. Recently, I remembered this moment. This novel is an extreme representation of the situation in the United States, where the turnout of the last presidential election was just over half that of all voters. In fact, more Americans did not participate in the election than they voted for the current president. “I’m not sick. They don’t do anything for us anyway,” one non-voter in Wisconsin told The New York Times in November 2016.
I grew up listening to it, so I am aware of this feeling. Perhaps you too have heard it from people in your life who talk about elections, even indifference or distrust. After all, the elected leaders change, but images of police atrocities, border violence, and drone bombing continue to flicker on the screen year after year. For conditional citizens, whose rights are often restricted due to birth accidents such as race, gender, and class, it is difficult to trust a system that has historically not benefited us. To insult the injury, conditional citizens may be brought to court during the campaign and the rest of the time may be ignored.
But the disproportionate focus on presidential politics in our media obscures the fact that elections are also about local choices. Select sheriffs, district attorneys, state and local judges, and members of the school board. That is, those who make decisions that directly affect how criminal justice is treated in the community, how schools run in the district, or textbooks. Selected for our children. Not voting means losing the right to speak in policy decisions that affect us every day. The White House is not the only government. It’s in our city, and voting is the only way we all have to evaluate paying civil servants, whether or not they vote.
Then there is a state proposal on the ballot. In California, where I live, voters are wondering if people convicted of felony should regain voting rights, whether local governments should expand rent management, and the risk of pretrial suspects on bail. A simple referendum can decide whether to replace it with an evaluation detention. In other words, we have the power to expand our franchise, protect people from evictions during huge financial burdens, and reduce the number of people in pretrial detention. In each case, the lives of tens of thousands of people, including our family, friends and neighbors, are affected, whatever the outcome.
Of course, non-voters aren’t the only reason why US election turnout remains relatively low compared to other democracies. There are millions of potential voters who face all kinds of obstacles and lead to disfranchisement. Many polling stations are closed in some states, especially in the south. This means that voting can take as long as 12 hours. Hourly wages and other non-exempt workers have to confiscate their daily wages to participate in the election process when the pandemic is already causing financial stress for many.
There are also rules that unnecessarily complicate the voting process. For example, some states have many collection boxes for mail voting, while others are limited to one county. Next is the logistical hurdle. Once upon a time I was text banking with Georgia voters and reminded me to vote when I heard from an older woman who lived in the country and said she couldn’t participate in the polls. Each year, voters like her are prevented from participating in the democratic process because voting is unnecessarily cumbersome and complex.
For me, the most important reason for voting has to do with our past and future. In the early days of the republic, franchises were a privilege granted only to owned white men. They could be governed by consent, but everyone else was governed by force. Decades of struggle were required before voting rights could be extended to people of other races and genders, some of which were violent and bloody. Voting rights were not taken for granted until the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Blacks were deprived, deprived, and deprived again, depending on the state and political moment. Given this history, voting is a moral obligation and a way of honoring the sacrifices of those who have come before us.
It’s also a way to honor the people who come after us. In the past few weeks, California has been consumed by the largest wildfire in state history. It severely damaged our air quality and threatened the health of our most vulnerable populations. Elsewhere in the United States, Iowa had a massive tornado, Florida had a record heat wave, and Texas had a hurricane. Voting with the future in mind is a way to take responsibility for the natural environment we leave for our children.
Earlier this month, I spent some time researching ballot candidates and initiatives, filling them out and mailing them. After that, I took a walk in the neighborhood. There were signs defending various candidates for the school board, city council, or president. One of my neighbors was fed up with lots of ads along the tree-lined road and recently put up a sign that says “Giant Meteor 2020”. I gave off a dry laugh. Our state is suffering from wildfires, housing crises, food insecurity, and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Meteors don’t get much worse.
But the signs also showed despair, a gift of indifference. Indifference does not intend to solve the crisis we are facing. Since March, the United States has endured what is called an “unprecedented” public health emergency and recession. It’s unclear to anyone how long it will take to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, how long schools and businesses will remain closed, and whether workers will recover from unemployment and lost wages. Hmm. Despair does not fix this confusion. Only action is done. What is certain is that the struggle is collective and our success depends on solidarity.
There are many forms of positive solidarity. You can join a local mutual aid organization, donate to a food bank every month, volunteer at school, or donate time, money, and effort to various grassroots organizations. We can strike, protest, or engage in civil disobedience. Voting is another expression of solidarity, especially if our election choices are based on collective well-being as well as self-interest.
We have voting rights for children and young adults, documented or undocumented immigrants, imprisoned or previously imprisoned people, and citizens who do not have access to voting for a variety of reasons. There is a great responsibility to those who do not have the right to vote. Voting is our duty in the social contract and a way to guide the republic in a direction that accurately reflects the will of all citizens.
In Seeing, blank ballots pose a dilemma for government and the media because they deprive the legitimacy of the former and the traditional story of the latter. However, fallout is quick. The Defense Minister imposes a state of emergency, which is breathtaking but is undoubtedly covered by journalists. But people don’t seem to be moving. They continue their daily work. “Citizens of this country did not have a sound habit of demanding proper enforcement of the rights conferred by the Constitution,” Saramago wrote. “It was logical and even natural that they didn’t realize they had those rights. They were paused.” These words acted as more cautionary warnings than ever before. I will.
Laila Lalami is the author of The Other Americans and, more recently, the author of Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.
This essay is part of Pen America’s We Will Emerge project, a collection of essays that speak directly to voters across the country prior to US elections. This project was made possible with the support of Becoming America of Pop Culture Collaborative.You can read the full version of this essay here