Sometime after noon on Monday, November 5, I received a panicked call from my friend, a fellow student at Washington University, wondering how to get to the station from campus to catch the train from St. Louis to her home in Chicago. When I asked her why she was booking a 10 hour round trip ticket in the middle of a week packed with midterms, she told me that she needed to vote.
My friend turned 18 this year, so this election is the first major election in which she is eligible to cast a ballot. However, after filling out all the necessary paper work to vote absentee, by November 5, she still had yet to receive the ballot. She called the county board of elections, who informed her that it must have gotten lost in the mail and that she was out of luck.
As a student of political science, the months before an election for me are spent scouring the headlines for scandals and statistics. I did not expect that my friend, a biology major with medical school ambitions, would be so devastated by the realization that it would be very difficult for her to be able to vote in this election. And while I was on the phone with her, helping her figure out which train to take, I wondered what I would be willing to do to vote.
On my 18th birthday, the first thing I did was roll out of bed and get on the computer to register to vote. The first time I voted, the ladies at the polling station clapped and gave me extra "I voted today" stickers. Being able to vote was this major privilege for me at 18.
I am reminded of the importance of enfranchisement when I turn on the news and see women in traditional dress smiling behind blue stained fingers after having broken tradition and voted for the first time, or when I open a history book and read about the men and women who had to fight for the vote in America. But I understand too that sometimes it is difficult to motivate yourself to vote when you begin to lose faith in the system.
After the hundredth campaign call and the millionth smear ad, voting no longer seems like a privilege. It begins to seem like a chore. Candidates spend so much time and money trying to get us to show up at the voting booth that the real issues get lost behind sound bites and yard signs. And as politics becomes increasingly polarized, faith that politicians can actually make the changes they promise in their speeches fades.
Yet there is still this one thing that helps me keep faith in American politics. The right to vote is a right that is afforded to me as equally as anyone else (strategic disenfranchisement in the hopes of reducing supposed voter fraud aside). No matter how dirty the election gets or how annoying the constant emails from one campaign or the other are, I still have this amazing right to go out and have my voice be heard as loudly as anyone else's.
When I was in high school, a teacher once asked, "What does one vote mean?" I answered "one vote." While my comment was then overshadowed by the more poetic response of, "everything," I stand by what I said, because I think that is even more empowering than thinking a vote means everything. The fact that my vote holds the same weight as that of my parents, my professors, and the president himself is incredibly powerful. Thinking about that makes me proud to vote.
By the time this article is published, the nation will be divided. Over half the nation will likely be satisfied with the outcome of the election, and the rest will suffer the disappointment of defeat. But before we slip back into those partisan roles that have been an obstacle to real change these past few years, I hope we can all be united in common admiration for the right we took advantage of on November 6. Because we tend to have such easy access to the vote in the United States, it can seem like less of a privilege than it does in places where blood is spilled and governments toppled in the fight for it. The realization that the right to vote is a constant in America, and that it is afforded to anyone who takes the time to take advantage of it is a remarkable part of this society. And when it is taken away, I suppose that makes us appreciate it all the more.
My friend was willing to travel over 600 miles to vote. How far would you go?