This coming Tuesday, Nov. 8, a grand ritual of American democracy will play out: the midterm elections. At stake, primarily, is the partisan balance of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives — and thus the direction of federal legislation. Yet, more is on the line. Besides control of Congress, governorships and mayoralities are also up for grabs, as are seats in state legislatures and on courts, county commissions, city councils, and school boards. In these offices and beyond, the fate of matters impacting all Americans, ranging from the economy to the environment, will be determined.
Ideally, the facts above would’ve been compelling enough for everyone to vote. But in reality, they aren’t. In a disturbing trend, the rate of U.S. civic engagement — referring to citizens’ participation in socio-political life, such as by voting — has been on a downward trajectory for years. Membership in civic organizations has declined precipitously for decades; the same is true of trust in government, which has reached a new low at 27 percent. And according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, U.S. voter turnout lags behind that of 30 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peer nations. Considering these statistics, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that just 47 percent of U.S. adults can identify the three branches of government. This unfamiliarity with our own model of governance is the ramification, to a degree, of a lack of civic knowledge and engagement, which is clearly an acute problem.
Princeton, too, hasn’t been fully immune to the civic engagement crisis: In 2014, a dismal 10.5 percent of the entire student population voted. Since then, there have been efforts to mobilize voters on campus and increase turnout through initiatives like Vote100 (for which I serve as an ambassador). They’ve yielded positive results. In 2020, slightly over three-quarters of Princeton students voted, a massive surge in comparison to 2014. However, we shouldn’t ever be content — or complacent — about this improvement, especially this year: A smaller share of the electorate tends to vote in midterms because, in the absence of a presidential race, there isn’t as much devoted media attention surrounding these elections.
It’s for this reason that Princeton students — now, with the looming midterm elections, and from then onwards — need to be at their most civically engaged and vote, if eligible. Of course, the University’s progress in civic engagement is encouraging and heartening, but it’s not a given that it’ll always continue; it must be maintained with vigilance. In addition, voting and civic engagement, more broadly, are habits that should be reinforced and practiced as early and frequently as possible. It’s arguably even more critical that they are cultivated at an institution like ours; undoubtedly, it’s safe to say that a large number of students who matriculate here will go on to assume positions of great responsibility — they, of all people, should need to understand the significance and importance of the democratic process through first-hand exposure and engagement.
So why should you really bother voting, the above points aside? The late Princeton resident and University staff member Laura Wooten, the longest-serving poll worker in U.S. history, gave the best explanation of why voting matters. As she asserted, “Vote every time. Let nothing and no one stop you because your vote is your voice.” In other words, voting carries weight because it’s your opportunity to directly influence policymaking and pick who policymakers are.
Yet voting, further, isn’t only about yourself; it’s about the well-being of your community and country. Voting and civic engagement, broadly, are mechanisms for holding authority accountable, but they’re also a means of ensuring that our tradition of self-government stays alive and that our democracy thrives. We choose our legislators to fairly craft laws and advocate for us. They’re not kings entitled to tenure; they’re subject to our approval.
Thus, the health of our political system — this American experiment — depends, in part, on our active involvement in it, particularly in our heated, often ugly political climate. After all, nothing will change if we don’t commit to making change. And voting is the most striking kind of change: peaceful, effective, and swift. It’s precious, too: So many fought and gave their lives to defend, preserve, and expand this foundational right at home and abroad. The 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to name a few, were the outcomes of their long, hard struggles. Never take them for granted; such apathy is corrosive to democracy itself. Rather, take advantage of those labors by engaging civically.
Meanwhile, for those unable to vote, due to individual circumstances (or non-citizen/international status), there are still plenty of opportunities to engage civically. Volunteer for a cause/organization that aligns with your values. Campaign for a party, candidate, or policy measure. Register voters. Staff the polls. Attend meetings, in-person or virtual, of your local city council or other commissions. Ask questions during public comments. Write op-eds or letters to the editor expressing your opinions. Follow debates. Conduct investigations on referendums and candidates’ stances. Talk with friends; try to learn something from a different perspective. Or, simply stay attuned to current events — read and watch news from a wide array of reliable sources. Perform any combination of the above, and you’ll improve your civic engagement by leaps and bounds.
Remember this: Cynics want you to feel that nothing you do matters, because that’s how they win. Don’t let that happen. You have the power to begin creating the change you want, as Laura Wooten noted, with your voice and your vote. Starting this Election Day, make that your priority. This republic is yours to keep — as long as you put in the work to keep it.
Make the decision to keep it yours.
Henry Hsiao is a first-year contributing columnist from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com.