Common wisdom is that you can’t complain if you don’t vote, but that your vote doesn’t really count for much outside of a swing state. As it often is, the common wisdom is wrong. Since many of us are going to the polls in the next few weeks, and many of us a week from today, I thought I would take a minute to explain why your vote matters (even if it doesn’t always count).
In many states, the presidential primaries are held alongside a whole host of other elections. In my home state of Vermont, for example, my primary vote probably won’t swing the presidential primary one way or another, but it absolutely could swing a more critical election.
One issue where your vote will matter is climate change mitigation. The science says climate change is real, man-made, and accelerating. I consider that an exigent circumstance. The chances of the federal government getting its head out of the sand before that sand becomes seafloor are slim, but state legislators and school boards have a big impact on how we deal with climate change going forward.
State governments, especially in areas prone to extreme weather or at risk from sea level rise, are the first responders to climate change, and they make and revise local energy policies. Whether your state devours fossil fuels, like Pennsylvania, or sets a goal to get all its power from renewables, like Vermont, depends on a lot who you elect to your state government. Likewise whether they stick to those policies or change them depends on your impact.
School boards also control a lot of how we think about climate change. Science deniers like to stack school boards with people who will “teach the controversy,” or, in plainer language, people who will create the controversy and sow doubt. School board elections are often ignored, and your vote may literally decide the difference between your children learning science or learning nonsense.
Even at the national level, your vote will have a certain impact—in that the number of people who vote overall can change the political landscape. In this presidential election, we have party elites going one way and many people going another; so remember that the party elites are always about party control, not about pushing for change. The smaller the number of people who vote overall, the easier it is for them to push an election one way or another, control the narrative, and stick you with two mediocre choices come the actual November election. Your individual vote won’t count prevent that, but if you don’t vote, you’re ceding your bit of power to the already powerful. Please don’t.
My last argument for your vote is personal—it reminds you to care. And you should. It isn’t true that you can’t complain if you don’t vote, and I entirely understand the disillusionment with the process that leads to that choice. But voting is a reminder that none of us can wash our hands of what happens in our country. If we check out of the process, we’re as much to blame for its failure as those who intentionally sabotage it.
Yes, American Democracy needs some big changes. But those changes start with engagement. They start with people taking that extra hour or two to get to the polls, cast their vote, and balance the scales just a little.
And the more people who do nothing, the more nothing we all end up with. So instead, please vote.