Are you thrilled that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states? Horrified that the Affordable Care Act is intact? Pleased that Ivy Taylor is San Antonio’s elected mayor? Appalled that open carry will be legal in Texas starting Jan. 1?
Whatever your feelings about decisions at the local, state or national level, the fundamental factor in making them happen is your vote.
You may not feel powerful between one percenters throwing their money at politicians, lobbyists doing the same with their influence, and the politicians gerrymandering our districts to their own best advantage.
But it’s your vote that elects the men and women who make the decisions, and it’s your vote that throws them out of office. Your vote carries the same weight as that of a Wall Street banker. The vote of newly minted citizen is equal to the vote of a high-powered lawyer. The only vote that isn’t counted is the one that isn’t cast.
We live in a democracy where we are given this wonderful power to govern ourselves, but far too few of us take advantage of it. The result is that we are governed by the minority.
In 2012, President Barack Obama received 51.6% of the popular vote, which was indeed a majority – but only of those who voted. Less than 55% of the voting-age population voted, according to the Federal Election Commission, meaning about 28% of the eligible population elected the president, about average for a presidential year.
In 2014, Greg Abbott was elected governor by a resounding margin, 59.3%. Still, with only 33.7% of registered voters turning out to vote, according to the secretary of state, he was elected by less than 20% of the state’s registered voters.
This year, Ivy Taylor became the elected mayor of San Antonio, winning a bit under 52% of the vote. Because just 14% of registered voters cast ballots, 50,659 people – 7% – elected Taylor out of almost 700,000 registered voters.
You think your vote doesn’t count?
Barely 3,000 votes separated Taylor and Leticia Van de Putte. Just think: Out of the 600,000 people who could have voted but didn’t, it would have taken a tiny fraction – one half of one percent of them – to vote and Van de Putte would have been giving the victory speech.
Even with Abbott’s blowout victory, Wendy Davis would now be in the governor’s mansion if just about 10% of the registered voters who chose not to vote had chosen otherwise and voted for her.
Obama beat Mitt Romney by about five million votes, but had 10% of the more than 54 million people who reported not voting in the election cast ballots for Romney, history would be much different.
On an even more local level, tie votes – unusual but not unheard of – make even clearer the power of one vote, cast or not. In 2012, a city council seat in Seguin was decided by coin toss after a runoff resulted in a tie vote. In Webster, near Houston, a roll of the dice was chosen over a runoff in a city council race to save money. And in Wolfforth, near Lubbock, two city council candidates who tied flipped a coin to avoid the expense of a runoff.
“Casting lots” to break a tie after a runoff is actually dictated by the Texas Constitution and suggested as a means of breaking a tie instead of a runoff if the candidates agree. In that instance, nobody’s vote counts.
When it comes to the percentage of eligible population that votes, the United States falls far behind most other democracies and countries with other forms of government that allow voting. In a study by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an international organization that promotes democracy, the U.S. ranks 120th of 169 countries for which information is available on voter turnout.
Both the Pew Research Center and Michael McDonald, founder of the United States Election Project, point out that most countries automatically register citizens to vote as soon as they become eligible or actively seek them out, leading to higher numbers of registered voters. The United States does neither, leaving registration up to the individual.
What if you can’t make up your mind on a candidate or issue? There are many reasons you might vote other than voting for a candidate. There might be someone in the race you absolutely don’t want in office – cast a vote for the person most likely to win against that candidate. Use your right to protest the quality of the candidates by voting for a third-party candidate or even Minnie Mouse; he or she won’t win, but you’ll be making a statement or setting the scene for the future. If you feel your party doesn’t have a chance, vote for the opposition candidate you’d be least unhappy with. You are still making your voice heard.
Remember that you are not just electing a candidate. Through that candidate you are helping to make laws, to choose the next Supreme Court justice or chairman of the State Board of Education, to resolve the city police and fire union negotiations. You hold tremendous power with your vote.
Voting is your right, your privilege, your obligation.
San Antonio is your city; Texas is your state; the United States is your country. Your opinions, your beliefs, your moral code, along with those of your fellow citizens, are what make it what it is. If you don’t participate in electing people who share your views, they can’t help mold this city, state and country into what you want it to be. Use your vote to take responsibility, take charge, take power!
*Featured/top image: Voting signs posted outside Bowden Elementary School. Photo by Scott Ball.