I have spent thousands of hours over my career picking up absentee ballots, planning early vote field operations, raising money for them, and encouraging people to vote early, but I have rarely done it myself. For me, going to my local polling place on election day, standing in line with my fellow citizens (hopefully for a good long time), and going into the polling booth and casting my ballot is a sacred ritual, a moment that thrills me and almost always brings tears of joy to my eyes. I am religious about democracy, and the act of voting is the ultimate democratic ritual there is.
Thomas Jefferson's words launching this great modern experiment with democracy sum it up, and they are part of my scripture:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to pursue these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed."
We vote because government requires consent of the governed, and in that voting booth, we are the equal of every other citizen in this country. Some people have more money, some have more power, but in the act of voting, everyone's vote counts the same. And no matter how messed up things get, as long as we get to vote, we have a chance to change things. Wealth and power can and do manipulate our economy and manipulate our system of government, but when we vote, we still have the power to take things back into our own hands.
This power we hold in our hands to be a part of choosing who governs us did not come without a fight -- or to be accurate, a whole series of them. Jefferson and his fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence had to quite literally endanger and pledge their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" to get us our vote, and each generation has had to fight to expand and to keep the vote. From the abolitionists to the civil rights heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans were killed for seeking the vote. Poor people and immigrants have had to struggle to win the vote again and again through several generations. Women had to suffer arrest and humiliation while agitating 90 years for the right to vote. And still today, in every election we have candidates and a political party (the Republicans) who do not benefit from black and Hispanic and poor and young people voting who try to discourage voting in all sorts of appalling ways. In my book The Progressive Revolution, I listed a sample of the ways I have seen Republicans try and suppress the vote in my years on the campaign trail, and my list had to go on for three pages.
When people have died, when people have been beaten, when people have risked everything to give me and my fellow citizens the right to vote, how can I not vote? How can I not encourage everyone I know (and many thousands I don't over the years through door knocking and phone calling) to vote? It is our sacred duty and our great honor as citizens of a nation who invented the idea of a modern democracy whose citizens are equal under the law and in the voting booth, and who give their consent to their government. We owe it to our neighbors, to our fellow countrymen and women, to all those who came before us and whose shoulders we stand upon- to vote, and to be engaged enough to encourage our friends and neighbors to vote as well.
Because in a democracy, civility isn't enough. I really appreciate Jon Stewart's earnestness about the importance of people respecting each other's points of view and being able to work constructively together. I too believe in treating everyone, including my political opponents, the way I would want to be treated, with respect and courtesy no matter how heated the debate. But to hold a rally the weekend before the election, and never once mention voting, was fundamentally wrong. A democracy requires that people treat each other with respect in the political debate that we don't stomp on each other's heads and shoot bullets into our opponents' campaign offices. But it also requires action: the action of voting and encouraging others to vote, the action of standing up for what you believe and who you are for, the action of being engaged in the debate. There is nothing passive about making a democracy work, and we need to all be about the business of telling each other what we passionately believe in, and most importantly voting on the basis of what and who we think is right.
So go vote tomorrow if you haven't already voted. Make sure all your friends and neighbors get out and vote. If you have a candidate you believe in (and I hope you do), go knock on some doors or make some phone calls on their behalf today or tomorrow. Do it for yourself and your neighbors. Do it for all your ancestors, wherever they came from and whenever they got to this country. Do it for those less fortunate than yourself, and do it because it is your chance to stand on equal footing with the richest and most powerful people in the country. Do it for all those who sacrificed so much getting you the right and privilege to vote, knowing that the vast majority of people who have ever lived never got the chance. And when you go and vote, remind yourself how lucky you are to get your chance to be a part of deciding your nation's destiny.