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Why vote?

| Monday, February 24, 2020

Ah, the administration — that thing everyone loves to hate. It’s no secret. Go into Duncan or LaFun, start namedropping “Father Jenkins” or “Erin Hoffmann Harding” and you’re bound to hear some pretty impassioned rants.

So when it came time to vote in the student body election over the past two weeks, I just assumed people would vote since you didn’t really have to do, well, anything. Just click on a link in your inbox, tap the name of your candidate, hit submit and bam, you’re done. Yet for everything I’d heard and everything I’d seen, it still wasn’t enough. Despite how incredibly easy it was to make one’s voice heard, it didn’t seem to matter. And so election day passed by with indifferent shrug. The voter turnout: 42% for the first round and 38% in the runoff. Abysmal. Absurd. Disgraceful.

With the primaries now in full swing and a general election coming up this fall, I can’t help but think of what this says about our campus politically. If 62% of students aren’t willing to take fifteen seconds to fill out a form, how many more won’t take the time this spring and in November to fill out an absentee ballot or go to the polls? Of course, there’s an obvious distinction between student body elections and a presidential election, but I would be very comfortable in saying the vast majority of people who didn’t vote at ND did so for the exact same reasons they wouldn’t vote in a national, state or local election: It’s “not worth it.” Their vote “doesn’t matter.”  

So why should we vote? Right before midterms and presidential elections, the Internet always explodes with articles and quotes about the importance of voting, that “every vote counts.” We’re constantly reminded of elections that were determined by a single vote or the famous/infamous 537 votes in Florida that won George Bush the presidency in 2000. But, honestly, who’s going to vote because there’s that really, really small chance their vote just might, possibly, somehow determine who gets into office? Please. The math just doesn’t add up. A purely quantitative appeal simply won’t do.  

That’s because voting has always been more than this. It’s not something that’s just tallied up and plugged into a calculator. It’s a statement from the heart — about who we voted for, yes, but more fundamentally about our freedoms and institutions. It’s a belief in that same profound declaration, that same rallying cry, that same golden ideal which has captivated Americans from the buildings of Philadelphia to the beaches of Normandy, the streets of Little Rock and to this very day: That freedom is a precious gift from God, that man deserves to and can live in freedom. It’s an understanding of just how powerful a vote is and why people from China to Caracas are fighting for the same rights that we all too often take for granted. It’s a realization of just how precarious a thing freedom really is. America is and has always been, as Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have put it, “A Republic — if you can keep it.” It’s our task, our sacred duty to make sure that the liberties we now enjoy will be passed on to our children and our children’s children and that they will live in a country and a world brighter than the one we live in today.

No doubt some will find this a little dramatic, absurd even. Such are the sentiments of the neglected ballot. Not voting is a statement itself, one that argues, at bottom, one of two things: that politics isn’t that important or that all this talk about losing freedom is way overblown, both of which simply aren’t true. Indeed, politics plays a defining role in pretty much everything we do. Education, transportation, health care, the environment, technology, economic policy, you name it — our lives are shaped by how our government acts. This is why Charles Krauthammer called politics “the driver of history.” “You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures,” he writes, but “[g]et your politics wrong … and everything stands to be swept away.” Even the shortest reflection on the past century reveals this chilling truth.  

And politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Indeed, nothing may be more susceptible to change. If history teaches us anything, it’s that nothing in human affairs is indestructible, that nothing is safe. How is democracy any different? What makes it so special? Across the world illiberal democracy and authoritarianism are on the move while freedom continues its retreat. And America isn’t somehow protected from this threat. Our long democratic history alone can’t save us. Our institutions are only as strong as our will to protect and defend them, which poses a considerable problem because we, too, are facing a crisis of confidence in the importance and power of democracy, especially among young Americans. A pair of political scientists from Harvard and the University of Melbourne found that only around 30% of millennial think it’s “essential” to live “in a democracy,” and, in 2017, Pew Research reported that nearly half of Americans 18-29 would support a government not of freely-elected officials, but of appointed experts. This isn’t even to mention the fact that over 80% of Americans under 45 failed a basic, multiple-choice citizenship test with questions like what countries did the U.S. fight in WWII or how many seats are there on the Supreme Court. Worried yet? For our sake, I hope so. That’s why you need to act. If not you, who will? Will you let others speak for you? Freedom is bought at a heavy price. It can be sold at a whim. It loses its value when we treat it as a spectator sport, when we believe that our voice doesn’t matter.

But we are called to do much more than just vote, and we fail as citizens when we see our duty as just fulfilling some yearly ritual.  Indeed, the most vulnerable society is one that hasn’t taken the time to think about the issues and their beliefs. Our democracy can only work as long as all kinds of perspectives are actively discussed and challenged.  

This is our task — the same task faced by every generation of Americans. America is that great experiment which asks if the people are capable of governing themselves. It requires you to be active, involved and invested. If we aren’t, America will represent the most disappointing tragedy in the history of freedom. What each and every one of us does now will paint a portion of the mosaic that is the American story. What will it look like? You and I will decide. I refuse to stand by and watch. How about you?

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano, and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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