When I was in elementary school, I cherished Election Day. I spent those days with my bubbie and she would always take me with her when she went to vote. The precincts in drab elementary school gyms or musty church basements were often underlit and overcrowded, but they hummed with a sense of purpose and pride. I pulled on the silly-looking curtains that drew closed to protect our privacy. I relished those moments when I was allowed to crowd in next to her and watch her fill out her ballot. On occasion, kind election workers would let me practice on sample ballots as I waited anxiously to turn 18 and cast my own vote.
Fifteen years after my bubbie’s passing, I have come to realize that these Election Day rituals were as important as sitting around her kitchen table as she taught me how to roll out rugelach or sitting on her couch in Oak Park as she gave me my first set of knitting needles. My bubbie taught me about our Jewish culture in the forms of Yiddish and baked goods, but, just as importantly, she taught me about our civic culture. She taught me to be a Voter.
As next week’s Aug. 7 primary elections are only days away, are you going to vote? There is an 80 percent chance the answer is no. In 2014, only 17.4 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot in the primary. While that number went up to 41.6 percent for the 2014 general election, that still means more than half of the voting age population did not show up on Election Day.
Brian Dickerson commented in a recent Detroit Free Press editorial, “If the world is run by people who show up, then Michigan residents have delegated the responsibility for governing our state to the small fraction of their neighbors.” While there are electoral implications, I am troubled by the cultural impact of low voter turnout. A most glorious part of the American experiment is that, through our vote, we are all given ownership of our country’s present and future.
So now that most American citizens over age 18 have been given their right to vote, what are we doing? We’re tossing it aside. What does it mean to throw away our vote as if it is valueless? Are we like absentee landlords, abandoning our responsibility to take care of what belongs to us? Do we feel so powerless, or so disillusioned by dysfunctional government, that we have forgotten that this system grants us, the people, all the power?
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, posits that part of the problem is how we talk about voting. Voting is almost exclusively an action, “Go vote.” Instead, Grant suggests we should talk about “being a Voter,” which makes it part of our identity. Being a Voter means that we participate in our democracy. Being a Voter means we exercise ownership over our city, our county, our state, our country. Being a Voter is a patriotic act we are blessed to be able to exercise.
Regardless of who you vote for, make a statement about your identity and values by choosing to take ownership — simply by casting a ballot. Instead of complaining about the lines or the candidates, show up with your children or grandchildren and embrace an opportunity our ancestors could not have fathomed. Next week, start a ritual that may be more important than rugelach or gefilte fish. On Aug. 7, be a voter.
Alicia Chandler is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC.