If I had to name a single act that most unites us as Americans, it would be voting. Well, maybe also watching the Super Bowl (or at least the halftime show). As Americans, we all have different religions, belong to different sub-cultures and have unique dreams of what we want for our lives. But voting is something that we all share as a right and obligation of being a citizen. And history shows that it’s a hard-fought right that some disadvantaged groups are continuing to fight to this day.
I view voting as a privilege, so it baffles me when I hear people say that they didn’t vote, whatever their reason. To me, it is equivalent to saying, “I’m not really that invested in the well-being of our country.” I can understand if people don’t want to volunteer their time to become an activist or donate their hard-earned money to a campaign. But to abstain from participating in a civic exercise that is the foundation of our democracy is simply inexcusable.
I have heard some make the argument, “Well, my vote doesn’t really matter as much because I’m in a blue/red state.” Even in states that favor one or the other party overwhelmingly in national elections, this statement ignores the importance of local elections in shaping peoples’ lives. In addition, this kind of statement promotes what economists call the “free-rider” problem (i.e., when those who benefit from public goods or services do not pay for them, resulting in an under-provision of those goods or services). The less we “invest” in the work of shaping the direction of our civic bodies—be they city councils or the U.S. Senate—the worse off those civic bodies, and by extension society, will be.
More than believing that I have an imperative to vote, though, I vote because I believe that voting is the best way to make a difference in the lives of a large group of people, particularly those who are more disadvantaged than I am. That may be a controversial statement to some. After all, many Jewish kids are raised with a notion of tikkun olam that emphasizes the mission of Jews to repair the world through our deeds. Some people take that imperative to mean that their careers should be directly tied to efforts that focus on making the world a better place. But it turns out that making a “meaningful difference” in the world is harder than it looks.
Maybe I’m doing things wrong, but if I’m being honest, no matter my best intentions, my regular day-to-day actions are in no way moving the needle on, say, climate change or the ongoing war in Yemen. Faced with that sobering reality, I might conclude that nothing I can do matters because the world is fundamentally broken. But the other voice in my head chimes in and says, “Yes, the world is broken, and perhaps the best means that I have at my disposal to do something about it is through supporting candidates for public office who I think have the best ideas to mend some of that brokenness.” Our political system is designed such that elected representatives do indeed have a great deal of power, even while there are checks and balances on the power of any one political office.
Finally, even if I were to believe that my vote is just a drop in the bucket and not likely to impact the progression of my community or the country at all, I would still believe that the act of going to the polls alongside my fellow Americans is fundamentally worthwhile. It instills a common sense of purpose, that we are truly all on this journey together, even though we may have vastly different perspectives on how to get there—or even where we are going. I would still believe that voting makes me a better person, a better Jew, a better husband, son and neighbor.
I know that many of us are sick of politics and the intense acrimony that seems to permeate the entire political process in our country nowadays. But the worst response we can have to our current situation is apathy. As our rabbis teach us in Mishna Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it (2:21).” Let us not hold ourselves to such a high standard of “fixing the world,” but let us not become so jaded that we assume our act of voting does not make a difference. It does.
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