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
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.