Tuesday, May 13, 2008, felt like the biggest date in my life. I had my outfit perfectly planned and my schedule cleared. The activities started before seven that morning and lasted into the night. The same adrenaline that kept me anxiously awake the night before got me through the day. It was Election Day, and the first time I could vote. I had turned 18 just three months earlier, and with few more qualifications than that, I completed my ballot in my state's primary election first thing that morning and spent the rest of the day volunteering for a campaign.
I've been a nerd for as long as I can remember, and an opinionated one at that. I wasn't just a teachers' pet, bookworm, thick-glassed-thicker-framed glasses-wearing ginger kid from the time I was in middle school; I was an idealistic amateur pundit. I gleaned from the teachers, pastors, authors, mentors, politicians, and anybody I thought I should trust for their intellectual credentials and affirming influence. On the flip side, I vocally opposed any figure, in authority or not, who I disagreed with on any subject from academics to politics to religion. And I couldn't wait to grow up and out of teenage school-going to find myself in college and to see and know the world outside of my small hometown. Between the rhetoric of the last decade's culture wars and the dawn of social media, I struggled between opposing voices to put on my own identity like a growth spurt adolescent tearing through shrinking clothes.
Compared to my role models and opposition, I felt inferior because of my age. It didn't matter what I thought about the then controversial war in Iraq, what my teachers should say about evolution in the classroom, the global risks of a changing climate, or the local risks of changing our coal economy because I didn't have a legal say-so on Election Day. I was just a kid. To make up for that, I volunteered for candidates and issues, wrote juvenile letters to the editor of my hometown newspaper, convinced my parents to vote, and impressed and/or irritated teachers with my social activism in school clubs and outspokenness in class. I eagerly awaited the day when I would be 18 and a voting-age adult in the eyes of the government. Thankfully, as I neared that age, I was beginning to learn that knowing facts isn't as important as loving people and that not only is well done better than well said, but silent listening is often better than both. I was growing out of my well-intended passionate childhood and into a more compassionate adulthood.
18 was a good age for me to start voting, and I've taken every opportunity I've had to vote since. But I didn't have to do anything to get the right to do so, except being born in the United States and blowing out 18 candles: all luck. It wasn't because I was smart or interested in the process or because my family is rich (we are not). It was only because I live in a democracy, a representative, special interested, popularity contest-style democracy, but a democracy all the same. I get to vote because of a heritage of patriots and dissenters who fought, died, theorized, or protested my way to the ballot box. Through a process of trial and error since the ancient Greeks, democracy had been tried and tested before being dangerously experimented with by the founders of the U.S.
The history of this country's progress has since been led by the waves it makes when more people vote. Throughout the 19th Century, states began allowing white men without significant property, like me, to vote. After the Civil War, African American men were allowed to vote. In 1920, women were allowed to. Native Americans were four years later. Greater numbers of poor people were able to vote in the 1960s when poll taxes were constitutionally banned. When thousands of young men died in Vietnam with no electoral influence on their war-waging government, and as thousands of young activists demanded their own voting enfranchisement as well, people younger than 21 years-old were allowed to vote, too. From this history, we've developed a national faith in democracy, with voting as its chief sacrament. We don't just believe that everyone should share their opinion, but we're also willing to live with the consequences of others' ideas, whether we agree with them or not. That is supremely what we do when we wait in line to enter an election booth, fill in a few bubbles or click a few buttons, and head back to our individual lives.
Yet, only about half of eligible U.S. voters vote in our flashy quadrennial presidential elections, and far fewer show up for midterm congressional elections. We instinctively expect our right to free speech, and we respond in polls, water cooler conversation, and Thanksgiving table talk with the most disdain for our elected figures. But we fail to be responsible enough to share that opinion when and where it matters: at a polling place on a Tuesday in early November, every other year. Congress' approval rating is hovering right now around 6%--roughly the same as root canals' and even lower than Nickelback's. Odds are you're in the 94% that is repulsed by some aspect of our dysfunctional legislative body. I can assure you, however, that if 90+% of eligible voters voted next year, the current Congress would be retired to the history books in an unprecedented turnaround. Instead, only about 40% of us will, and the status quo will reign.
If we really believe in democracy, that is, "the rule of the people," then we must believe that people should vote merely because they're people and that we all benefit from the inclusion of others' voices regardless of their race, ideas, religion, gender, income, education, record, or any other qualifier. That's why I was even able to vote as an unaccomplished 18 year-old. And that's why many nations have sought ways to get more and more people to vote. Countries as varied as Australia, Belgium, and Peru require nearly all citizens to do so. But in the U.S., while most of us ignore our ability and responsibility to this most basic function of our cherished patriotism, there are many others in some places who are deprived of this right entirely.
Since I moved to Kentucky to attend college five years ago, and chose to stay put as an alumnus, in love with this region and state, I've been inspired by the effort of organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth that work tirelessly to inspire our state to be even better. Upon moving to the Bluegrass State, I've learned from them that Kentucky is one of just a few places in the U.S. that bars all felons from voting even after they have served their prison sentences. Even perpetrators of nonviolent crimes are effectively eliminated from our electoral process for life. To those who don't already honor and exercise their voting rights, this might not seem like much. But to those of us who take great pride in our nation and its capacity to protect and expand the liberties of its citizens, it's more than a big deal.
Of the approximately quarter of a million disenfranchised former felons in Kentucky, many are parents, pastors, businesspeople, and a diversity of other reformed and reforming people. Many are doing all the good work that they can to make the futures of their communities and families better, and they often feel that they have to do even more than others just to make up for the fact that they can't vote. It pains me that my voice matters to our state more than their redeemed ones and that others still don't even use the right to vote that these former felons crave. My few years of political enthusiasm takes me to the polls early and often, but compassion compels me to come to those who have been imprisoned with the respect and help due them. The least we can do is listen to them, including by hearing their vote. I'm calling my state legislators and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (who claims she may or may not be considering a run against Mitch McConnell), and asking you to do the same to help pass House Bill 70 to grant automatic restoration of voting rights to most former felons once they have paid their debt to society. In the middle of the summer, it's easy to ignore political heat anywhere, especially in just one state. But as I've gotten to know my new Kentucky home of hollers, knobs, busy streets, and floodplains, I've come to love the people the most. Many of these people's voices are politically muted, and that doesn't just frustrate them. It hurts all of us. It's a bridle on our spirit. Make sure you vote next year, but, before then, be a patriot to the widening of our democracy and a rebel to the status quo by helping someone else vote, too.