Voters cast their ballots in a polling station in Lexington, Ky., on May 22, 2018.
Christian Tyler Randolph—The New York Times/Redux
By Nancy Gibbs
October 25, 2018
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Gibbs, a former writer and editor in chief at TIME, is Visiting Edward R. Murrow professor, Harvard Kennedy School. She is the co-author, along with Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.

Just because the Leading Man commands center stage, through all the acts of comedy and tragedy and farce, does not mean he gets to decide how the play turns out. Every year, come November, the audience becomes the actor. Young and old, red and blue–the stage is yours.

The most fateful question in any election cycle is not who’s ahead; it’s who shows up. In 2014, the midterm mood was so lukewarm that turnout was the lowest in 72 years. But it appears that this year just might be different. Let’s hope this is true, but not just because of who could win, control the Hill, approve the next Justice, partner with or police the President. Social scientists charting the health of America’s democracy see a series of threats ranging from distrust in institutions to attacks on the press to interference from abroad to deepening polarization at home. There is no easy way to fix this; it’s only easy to know where to begin.

Vote because it is the one absolutely necessary step toward any better place. It reminds public servants about the public they serve. It dilutes the power of big donors and narrow interests. It builds civic muscles we need all through the year to serve our neighbors and strengthen our communities. And it confounds the experts who insist on predicting outcomes as though the election were a formality. Voting is an act of faith in the possibility that in a true democracy, anything can happen.

Vote if the voices you hear don’t speak for you. “Elections have consequences,” Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell have said in defense of their power plays. We shape outcomes only if we provide input. Otherwise, we are wind through a leafless branch, moving nothing at all.

Vote because you refuse to let voting become the privilege of the enraged and engaged. It’s fine not to care about politics; these days, it’s even healthy. You still get a vote, to remind politicians that they serve both the people who admire them and those who ignore them.

Vote because there are those who may not want you to, who promote laws making it harder for poor people or young people or not-white people to cast a ballot. Nearly 16 million people were struck from voting rolls from 2014 to 2016, reports the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. From Georgia to North Dakota, activists are fighting in the courts and in the streets over who gets to cast a ballot–battles that both inspire and deter people from showing up at the polls.

Vote to defy those who spread false rumors of active shooters near polling places, who create fake Facebook posts claiming you can vote by text, who distribute flyers listing the wrong date or address for elections and polling places.

Vote as a nod to a time when people were fine if their son married a Republican and their daughter a Democrat.

Vote because democracy would be healthier if races were closer. More than 60% of Americans live in counties that in 2016 were decided by more than 20 points. So why should politicians bother to engage in hard debates or even look for a middle ground? Your vote is not wasted if you are a San Francisco Republican or a Wichita Democrat. Even the reddest and bluest states can swerve; just ask Not-a-Senator Roy Moore, after crimson Alabama elected a Democrat, or Charlie Baker, the popular Republican governor of the socialist republic of Massachusetts.

Vote because you refuse to let voting become the privilege of the enraged and engaged

Vote because our civic culture needs some love right now. “Most people don’t care about democracy issues; they care about particular issues, like guns or health care or climate change,” observes Archon Fung, a professor of citizenship and self-government at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. But that could change as people are growing more concerned about the health of our institutions. “Democracy is being beaten up, by negative advertising, by low turnout, by tribes attacking each other rather than being willing to listen or engage with one another,” Fung warns. “All of that takes chunks out of democracy. And the more chunks we take out, the more fragile democracy becomes. Eventually it may fall apart.”

Vote as a positive act, since our system has become pitilessly negative. If at all possible, find someone you can vote for. Our politics can’t reflect the best in us if it is powered mainly by the worst–our fears, our resentments, our fevered tribal furies. If you only vote against people you can’t stand, those you elect feel less accountable and have less reason to listen or learn.

 

Let’s vote because if by some miracle everyone voted, so much might be different. Roughly 40% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot in the 2014 midterms–the lowest percentage since 1942. The 55.7% participation rate in 2016 puts us 26th among 32 developed nations in voter turnout. But involvement varies widely: in 2014, in California alone, turnout ranged from 22.6% in Imperial County in the south to 65.0% in Sierra County up north. In 2016, 70% of people over 70 voted nationally vs. only 43% of people under 25.

This is partly because we make voting hard, in 50 states with 50 different systems. But that also means we can experiment with reforms, as individuals, employers and citizens of state governments. Denver decided in 2013 that it would mail all registered voters ballots, which they can send back or drop off at a designated spot. In 2016, 72% of its voters turned out–with increased participation from both Republicans and Democrats. As of this year, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have automatic voter-registration laws, meaning that when people interact with the government (from getting a driver’s license to receiving food assistance), they are automatically registered. Oregon, the only state with data on the impact of these measures, instituted such a policy for the 2016 election and saw the largest turnout spike of all the states compared with 2012.

Vote because there are fewer excuses. A 2014 Pew survey found that two-thirds of people who didn’t vote said they just didn’t have time. So outdoor-apparel retailer Patagonia will close all its stores and headquarters and give everyone a paid day off so they have time to get to the polls, just as companies like Spotify, Ford and General Motors did in 2016. “No American should have to choose between a paycheck and fulfilling his or her duty as a citizen,” argues Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. Given the odds against Congress making Election Day a national holiday, groups like Vote.org are lobbying companies to give workers at least two hours’ paid time off for a trip to the polls. Companies from Pinterest to Walmart to Tyson have signed on.

Vote if the voices you hear don’t speak for you

Vote because this is not the first time our politics has gotten ugly, though the ugly is now everywhere. We are in one another’s faces and feeds 24/7, in ways not possible 10 years ago. And we are served, though that hardly feels like the right verb, by a President with a unique indifference to uniting the country and a rare passion for jabbing his finger into our wounds. It is easier to incite than inspire; it is also effective, or he might not be the President, and Brett Kavanaugh might not be a Justice. Conflict drives engagement, which captures attention, the currency of our age.

We get what we reward. So vote as an act of common commitment to the common good. At a time when Americans disagree on so much, we can agree that the four-alarm fire of our political scene is horrific. Think of your Facebook friends whose politics you’re sick of or whose politics you share; vote because it’s a better response than a comment.

Let’s vote like it matters. Because then it will.

Gibbs, a former editor-in-chief of TIME, is the Edward R. Murrow visiting professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government

This appears in the November 05, 2018 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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