Vot­ing is not just an Amer­i­can rit­ual but an ex­pres­sion of hope for fu­ture

Cast­ing your bal­lot is part of the process to ef­fect change in our so­ci­ety

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Chris­tine Ger­bode

This week, I will cast my vote in the U.S. midterm elec­tion from Jiangsu Prov­ince in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China. I am a life­long Hous­to­nian re­cently di­verted to North Carolina for grad­u­ate school. This semester, how­ever, I am study­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy from just out­side of Shang­hai, 12 time zones away from home.

My Chi­nese class­mates of­ten seem be­mused when the topic of elec­tions comes up, par­tic­u­larly given ris­ing ten­sions over U.S.-China trade and the spec­ta­cle of White House tweet storms. What do you say to those who have never had the right to vote when they ask you about the ab­sen­tee reg­is­tra­tion form you are print­ing out? “Did you choose this?” they ask me in var­i­ous del­i­cate ways.

They are of­ten stunned when I tell them that less than half of U.S. vot­ers cast a bal­lot for Pres­i­dent Trump. I try to ex­plain — de­mo­graph­ics, the elec­toral col­lege, the his­tory of the fed­eral sys­tem

— but I am my­self un­cer­tain what will come of the grow­ing sys­temic dis­tor­tions of elec­toral power rooted in pop­u­la­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal shifts that the Found­ing Fa­thers could never have imag­ined.

A ten­dency to­ward po­lit­i­cal cyn­i­cism may be my gen­er­a­tion’s nat­u­ral in­her­i­tance. I am one of the roughly 115 mil­lion Amer­i­cans of vot­ing age who has never known a time be­fore Water­gate. I came of po­lit­i­cal age as the art of toxic par­ti­san rhetoric was metas­ta­siz­ing into a multi­bil­lion dol­lar in­dus­try, some­where amid the fall­out of 9/11 and the rise of weaponiz­able pre­ci­sion in mass dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing. For a younger me, cyn­i­cism was a de­fen­sive re­sponse to the con­tra­dic­tions I saw be­tween what Amer­i­can pol­i­tics claimed to be and what it ac­tu­ally seemed to be.

It’s easy to for­get, in that mind­set, what progress can and has been made in our sys­tem, step by slow, dif­fi­cult step. And the march to­ward a more per­fect union, wind­ing through many chap­ters, will not likely be com­pleted in our life­times any more than it was dur­ing that

of ear­lier gen­er­a­tions. But our sys­tem, for all its flaws, gives us tools to nav­i­gate with — a struc­ture for civil so­ci­ety and the mech­a­nisms to im­prove upon it as we dis­cover new needs. Un­der­pin­ning every part of this sys­tem is the power to vote and the crit­i­cal ne­ces­sity of do­ing so.

Here in China, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to ar­tic­u­late the most fun­da­men­tal pur­poses of vot­ing. I re­ferred the other day to the United State’s po­lit­i­cal messi­ness as per­haps be­ing a trade-off for democ­racy, and was laughed at by a Chi­nese col­league, who mat­ter-of­factly in­formed me that China is a democ­racy as well. Af­ter all, the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party works on be­half of The Peo­ple. What could be more demo­cratic?

I strug­gled for a mo­ment to name the es­sen­tial, crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence: Agency, I fi­nally told him. Vot­ing is an ex­pres­sion of in­di­vid­ual agency. A pro­tected, di­rect chance for en­gage­ment with the shape and fu­ture of my gov­ern­ment, with­out fear of reper­cus­sions for the choices I make. That is what our messi­ness buys us, and it’s what we stand to lose if we do not guard it, fight to ex­pand prac­ti­cal ac­cess to it, trea­sure and

use it. Be­cause with it, and from it, comes every other power within the sys­tem — every means for en­gag­ing with gov­ern­ment and de­mand­ing that it be held ac­count­able. It isn’t per­fect, and it isn’t enough on its own, but through the act of vot­ing, real demo­cratic lever­age is pos­si­ble.

My grand­fa­ther passed away on Nov. 8, 2016, hours be­fore the polls closed. One of the last things he did, in the quiet, bedrid­den weeks be­fore he died, was give his can­di­date choices to my grand­mother, who marked them on his ab­sen­tee bal­lot. He voted to im­prove the world that he was about to leave. He voted to make things bet­ter for his chil­dren and for his grand­chil­dren, for me and for those who will come af­ter.

I am writ­ing to ask you to do the same. Vot­ing is not the only way to ef­fect change — and vot­ing alone can­not do the job of form­ing that more per­fect union. But it is foun­da­tional in that it gives other po­lit­i­cal ac­tion its weight. And when those who do care deeply about the health of this coun­try refuse to vote for the best op­tion avail­able, they make a choice to am­plify the power of those who did show up. Ab­stain­ing is not a neu­tral act.

The cyn­i­cal part of me fell away al­to­gether on the day early vot­ing be­gan in Har­ris County. Sud­denly, my Face­book feed was flooded with pho­tos: of vot­ing lines, sticker self­ies, smil­ing and deter­mined and an­gry and ex­cited friends and fam­ily a world away, all go­ing to the polls. I couldn’t help but grin.

Amid all the par­ti­san ran­cor, chaos and dis­en­chant­ment, vot­ing is a rit­ual that binds us as a na­tion, our phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion of our hope for a bet­ter fu­ture — if not for our­selves, then for those to fol­low.

So go cast your bal­lot. Mine is on its way.

John Overmyer

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