My friend once joked that America’s chief export was democracy -- that it was something we cultivated in such abundance, we had an excess to cart overseas and bestow upon the oppressed masses we found there. It was meant as a cynical commentary on our foreign policy and the way we viewed ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. But, looking back on it now, I think that commentary extends into the realm of domestic affairs as well.
I say that because, though American democracy is still lauded nationwide as something unique and precious, we are no longer the only democracy in the world. We are not the purest democracy, the most populous or the best informed. And, for a long time, we have not been a particularly active democracy in terms of getting out the vote.
In 2008, the contest between President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain made headlines nationwide for the sheer mass of voters it brought to the polls. By the numbers, the race was decided by more voters than any presidential election in the nation’s history. Percentagewise, it saw the highest voter turnout in nearly half a century. That record-shattering, democracy-affirming turnout amounted to about 64 percent of the electorate.
To put that figure in perspective, the turnout for the 2012 South Korean presidential election was calculated at almost 76 percent of eligible voters (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/19/park-geun-hye-south-korea-election), the 2014 Indian general election at more than 66 percent and the 2013 Kenyan presidential race at just shy of 86 percent. In April, Afghanistan’s third presidential election was decided by an estimated 58 percent of the country’s voting-age population, which, despite Taliban violence and threats, still managed to top the poor American showing of just 57.5 percent in the 2012 race between Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
The average turnout is even lower in midterm years, hovering around 40 percent. Certain groups also reliably come out in particularly low proportions: Asian and Hispanic Americans, members of low socioeconomic classes and 18- to 24-year-olds — a demographic that many of us now find ourselves in.
I’m not making this critique from a blameless position. Nearly a year and a half after my eighteenth birthday, for various reasons, I have yet to cast a single vote. But come November, wild horses couldn’t keep me from the voting booth.
I spent the first sixteen years of my life in California, a state so unwaveringly blue in recent presidential elections that candidates never bother to make appearances or air campaign ads in an attempt to sway its already-decided voters. Add to that well-earned sense of inevitability the fact that California, as the most populous state in the union, is home to over 17 million registered voters, and you might understand how the significance of a single vote might seem relatively diminished to someone viewing politics through the lens of a lifetime there.
But I still remember in 2004, as I sat, nine years old, with my parents in front of the computer and watched as the election was called for President George W. Bush, all of us with tears running down our faces, feeling that nothing mattered more at that moment than me being able to cast a vote for Sen. John Kerry. Not because it would have changed the results, but because it felt like the best way to protest. Because, even if I couldn’t change the course of events, I felt like turning in that ballot would give me the power to change my place in them.
In a country of hundreds of millions of people, one vote does not give you assurance or control. But it does give you a voice. Whether you’re voting in California or Wyoming, whether you’re on the winning side or the losing one, whether you’re voting for the county sheriff or the nation’s next president, you are in that one instant just as loud and as significant as everyone else in the voting booth. In that one instant, it doesn’t matter that we’re not the only, the purest, the most populous or the best informed democracy in the world. It just matters that we still believe in the worth of our votes, our voices, enough to make use of them.
Annika Neklason is a College sophomore from Santa Cruz, Calif., studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.