I have a confession to make. Deep breath. The first year I was eligible to vote, I sat it out.
It was Bush-Gore. *ducks to avoid rotten tomatoes*
Hear me out. I had all sorts of seemingly high-minded reasons for not voting when I was eighteen. First of all, I hated politics. Yep, you read that right—I, the author of The Wrong Side of Right, set amid a presidential campaign, once turned my nose up at anything with even the faintest whiff of partisanship. Debating issues, however important, felt reductive–more of a competitive sport than an exercise in finding common ground. Learning about policy felt, frankly, depressing. And picking a candidate felt like getting my hands dirty. I didn’t like either of them. I don’t remember what I had against Gore–and I suspect that if you’d asked me then, I wouldn’t have been able to answer, beyond the fact that he was a politician and I disliked politicians. So I sat it out. Smugly.
Well…almost smugly. On Election Day, I watched as hordes of New Yorkers milled around me, as usual, but that day wasn’t usual. Not for them. Even if they weren’t wearing “I Voted” stickers, I could tell who the voters were. They wore small, secret smiles. They had a different, buzzing energy to the way they moved, the way their eyes lit up. It was hope, but more than that, it was pride. There was an invisible field uniting all the voters, no matter which side they’d chosen—the fact that they’d chosen at all. They’d shown up, marked down their opinion. They’d exercised the rights that Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells fought to give them. That day, they’d made sure they were counted among the citizens of this country.
I’d done the opposite—and hadn’t even realized it until it was too late. I’d actively decided not to help steer the course of the country. I’d made myself an object that day instead of a person with a will and a voice, and I felt like one, especially in the years that followed. Could I really shout as loudly as my friends against the Iraq invasion and the Patriot Act if, the day the man behind those initiatives was elected, I hadn’t even shown up? I was in New York, yes, not Florida, where each individual vote wound up wielding power over the fate of the entire world. Still, to this day, I still feel guilty for not voting in that election. I could have been counted among the opposition. I could have been a citizen.
I’ve voted in every election since then. I still wiggle around in philosophical gray areas, strive to find nuance in my opinions on policy—and I haven’t always loved the person I’ve marked down on my ballot—but I’ve done my part to tip the world in the direction I want it to go.
So don’t be like me. Show up today. Make a choice, be a citizen, and tip the world.