The late George Carlin used to do a bit about voting, in which he suggested that criticizing politicians as some unique class of horrible people is ridiculous considering politicians are the products of American culture, and he also asserted that people who vote forfeit any right to complain about politics, on the basis that by participating in and thereby perpetuating a broken system, voters are part of the problem.
Obviously, it’s funnier when George Carlin explains it.
I always liked this bit, even though I am, myself, a compulsive voter.
I voted for the first time in the 1996 election, a fairly unexciting event given the continuing popularity of Bill Clinton. I was 19 years old and attending college in Boston, so I voted absentee, receiving my ballot in the mail and sitting on my bed in my dorm room at BU, poking neat holes in my punch-card using the odd plastic implement that came included.
The ballot came with meticulous instructions about making sure the hole you punched was fully punched, and that the little bit of paper must be completely divorced from all connection with the vote-containing ballot, and so on. It wasn’t until the 2000 election that we all discovered that a four-year presidential administration could hinge on a concept as bizarre as “hanging chads,” but I took my task seriously and made certain my voting-holes were all cleanly punched.
I’ve never missed an election since. But this is not because I have been powerfully moved by candidates; it’s because I value voting, itself, as a right.
Voting has always been easy for me; I’ve never had to stand in line for longer than 10 minutes, I’ve never been challenged at the polls, or asked for ID, or told that I was voting on “the wrong day.” Voting is a thing I might have taken for granted, like a lot of us do, if I didn’t know how hard folks had fought for the right to do so.
In the Jim Crow era, many former slave states established a poll tax as a means of limiting access to voting in defiance of the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly ensured the right of former slaves and other non-white citizens to vote. It was also around this time that the Ku Klux Klan formed as a secret organization dedicated to preventing black people from exercising their rights to vote.
The poll tax, costing money as taxes do, threw up a roadblock to voting not only for freed slaves but for all people of color, as well as anyone who was too poor for pay it, although it did allow for those who could prove their father or grandfather voted in the past to be “grandfathered” in and thereby not required to pay. This was also true of new laws requiring voters to take “literacy tests” or other conjured means of preventing both black folks and Native Americans from “qualifying” as voters, and is the origin of the term “grandfather clause.”
Because this “grandfather” exception was likely only to apply to white folks -- non-white grandfathers of the era would have risked lynching for even looking at a polling place in pre-Civil-War elections -- the poll tax was an overtly racist effort at restricting the vote, and it persisted into the mid-1960s, when it was finally deemed unconstitutional. Although it’d be nice to think of this as ancient history, there are many people alive today who once had to pay a poll tax to exercise their right to vote, and who faced not just intimidation but outright violence at the polls.
This is not to suggest that voter suppression has ceased to be an issue since. One contemporary version of the poll tax is the evolution of voter ID laws, which in some states require that voters show photo ID in order to be allowed to vote. Although these laws are promoted as reducing fraud at the polls -- which isn’t actually a real problem -- the truth is they disproportionately impact low-income communities, immigrants and people of color. Same with purging voter rolls and shady redistricting that favors a certain political party, or lying robocalls instructing voters that their special voting day is Wednesday the 7th, not Tuesday the 6th.
I am not an idealistic voter. I don’t vote in hope for a world made better by the federal government -- social divisions and partisanship has all but scrubbed that idea from the realm of what I think of as possible. I don’t usually get real excited about particular candidates either, although I admire those who do, like the middle-aged woman greeting traffic at the entrance to Boston’s Sumner Tunnel this morning, bouncing and smiling with her Scott Brown for Senate sign. I made eye contact and did not smile back -- I was in a horrid mood -- but I thought, how rare it is to see someone made joyful by her participation in politics. I’m glad that woman gets to vote for Scott Brown, even though I won’t be voting the same way. I’m glad because the process has made her positively excited about democracy, even at 8 am on a chilly Monday morning standing on a median surrounded by irritated commuters and car exhaust.
I like seeing people who are psyched to vote. I spent last week visiting my family in South Florida, a part of the state that tends to vote more powerfully Democrat than even my current home in eastern Massachusetts. The local news every evening began with comprehensive coverage of early voting, the cameras panning down impossibly long lines stretching for blocks, and the reporters speaking with eager voters who were waiting for two hours or more just to participate in the democratic process.
The early voting response was so overwhelming that many local politicians and election officials had called for Florida’s governor to extend early voting through Sunday, to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote would have the opportunity to do so without missing work or otherwise spending hours in line on Tuesday.
The prior governor, Republican Charlie Crist, had extended early voting under similar circumstances in 2008, but the current governor (Rick Scott, whom my dad in moments of anger has called a “tea party asshole”) refused to do so, leading even Crist to accuse him of voter suppression. Keep in mind that these guys are both Republicans, but the majority of early voters tend to be people of color who tend to vote Democrat, which is one reason why some Republican politicians continue to be opposed to early voting as a concept at all.
I vote for those people, for the people who have had to battle every step of the way to the polls. I vote because I never want to take for granted that I have the right, even given all the convoluted crap of the electoral college and criminal efforts like those described above to privilege certain voters over others. I vote because of my Colombian stepdad, who spent years hollering about politics, and who was better informed on many issues than a lot of folks who have been able to vote their whole lives, before he finally secured citizenship -- and the right to vote -- in 2002. I vote because in the end, for non-rich chumps like me and you, voting might be all we have in a representative democracy. This is our chance.
George Carlin may have been right about voting being meaningless in the larger scheme of our day-to-day lives; he was, after all, right about so many other things. I still think it’s important.
Not even because of the politics or because I want my candidate to “win” -- I think voting is important because it’s one of those things that you never have cause to miss until it’s taken away, until your vote goes uncounted and your participation is removed. It’s easy to be cynical about voting, and I fall into that thinking myself much of the time, but when I remember how many people have given their lives for this right, I can’t blow it off as inconsequential.
I hope you vote tomorrow. I don’t care who you vote for; I don’t care if you go straight GOP or Dem or if you write-in Kermit the Frog as your presidential pick. I just hope that you vote, because for all the fair criticisms to be made of the process, of superpacs and election spending and all the absurd theater of the political campaign, the only reason anyone ever gets elected to anything is because people bothered to vote. Public participation is the point on which our entire system of government turns, and as points go -- with apologies to George Carlin -- it’s not a bad one to hang it all on.