“Donald Trump winning the presidency — I feel kind of responsible for that,” said Ashenafi Hagezom, a 27-year-old from Las Vegas who hasn’t voted in any election since becoming eligible nine years ago. Not in 2012, when young and minority voters — Hagezom’s parents are Ethiopian immigrants — showed up in record numbers to re-elect President Barack Obama. Not in 2014, when not so many showed up, and Republicans took back the Senate. And not in 2016, when Trump won the White House on a platform of white grievance and anti-immigrant spite.
That last one still stings, and it inspired Hagezom to participate in this year’s midterms. “I think I may have been registered before,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not too sure. But this is my first time actually paying attention, knowing the candidates. Doing my job as a citizen.”
Hagezom’s day job is at a Hudson News in McCarran Airport, but since May he has been on paid leave thanks to his union, the Culinary Workers Local 226, which has 57,000 members and has assembled a remarkable turnout operation in and around Las Vegas. Hagezom is one of about 250 union members canvassing for votes six days a week, knocking on doors and urging voters to the polls. The stakes could not be much higher: The outcome of the extremely tight Nevada Senate race, between Republican incumbent Dean Heller and Democrat Jacky Rosen, will be crucial in deciding which party controls the Senate.
With Election Day around the corner, Hagezom’s transformation — from nonvoter to voter — serves as a useful lesson about the dangers of political disengagement in the United States, where voter turnout consistently ranks near the bottom of turnout in modern democracies.
Early voting data from Nevada to Texas to North Carolina to Maine show that Americans are voting at unusually high rates for a midterm election. But those rates are still far below what they ought to be.
The obstacles to voting are real. The worst are those put in place by Republican legislators and officials to depress or neutralize turnout by minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups. Strict registration laws, bogus voter-fraud prosecutions, aggressive purges of the rolls, polling place closures and the like echo the poll taxes and literacy tests of earlier generations. The tactics may have changed, but the strategy remains the same.
Many other voters discover that, through the dark art of gerrymandering, they aren’t picking their politicians so much as they are being picked by them. Other voters are thwarted not by malice but by incompetence — poorly run polling places, bureaucratic snafus, confusing ballots and more.
Finally, there are the millions of eligible voters who are their own worst enemies. They may be unhappy with the choices before them or unconvinced that their votes will make a difference. Either way, they sit out Election Day, nursing their grudges and telling themselves that they are making a political statement. Wrong.
Whether or not the cynics believe it, every vote really can make a difference. An election in 2017 for a legislative seat in Newport News, Virginia — a seat that happened to determine control of the state’s House of Delegates — was effectively decided by a single vote, out of more than 23,000 cast.
Or take an even more consequential example: In the 2014 midterm elections, barely more than 1 in 3 eligible voters turned out; 143 million others stayed home. It was the worst showing in 70 years, and one of the weakest midterm turnouts in U.S. history. The only people celebrating were Republicans, because smaller electorates tend to be more conservative ones. The abysmal turnout in 2014 followed that pattern, and it allowed Republicans to seize control of the Senate. That gave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky the power to shift the Supreme Court to the hard right for at least a generation.
Still think voting doesn’t matter?
This message is especially important for young people like Hagezom, who lean strongly Democratic and yet are notoriously bad about showing up to the polls. In 2014, the turnout rate for voters younger than 30 was less than 20 percent. This year’s numbers, so far, are looking much better, and they will very likely remain high in 2020, when President Donald Trump will be on the ballot. But beyond that, the struggle to keep young voters politically engaged will continue.
No matter who wins, higher turnout is a good thing. It reaffirms the essence of the democratic process, and it tends to help candidates who are both more reasonable and more representative of the public at large.
It’s also true that when more people vote, the electorate becomes more liberal. If Americans voted in proportion to their actual numbers, a majority would most likely support a vision for the country far different from that of Trump and the Republicans in Congress. This includes broader access to health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, more aggressive action against climate change and more racial equality in the criminal justice system.
Republicans are aware of this, which is why the party has gone to such lengths to drive down turnout among Democratic-leaning groups.
A few recent examples:
In North Dakota, the Republican-led Legislature changed the law to make it harder for Native Americans to cast a ballot.
In Kansas, officials moved the only polling place in Dodge City, which has a Latino majority, outside city limits and far from public transportation.
And in Georgia, where the Democratic nominee for governor is an African-American woman, the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, who is secretary of state, suspended the registrations of 53,000 citizens — the overwhelming majority of them African-American — for discrepancies between registration and government identification information. Many of the discrepancies are minor, such as a dropped hyphen or an obvious typographical error.
It comes down to this: Democracy isn’t self-activating. It depends on citizens getting involved and making themselves heard. So if you haven’t yet cast a ballot, get out and do it Tuesday, or earlier if your state allows early voting. Help your family, friends and neighbors do the same. Help a stranger. Vote as if the future of the country depends on it. Because it does.
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