Why Americans don’t vote (and what to do about it)
On May 21, we have the opportunity to vote in the statewide primary election. As a former candidate, I vividly remember the grueling months leading up to a contested primary election – knocking on doors, shaking hands, attending chili suppers and pancake breakfasts, speaking at community forums, asking for votes and begging people to vote in that primary, preferably for me. I won by 489 votes.
Only about half of the eligible voters participated in that election. I wondered then, and I wonder now, why so many people who register to vote choose not to — especially in primary elections.
Kentucky’s voting laws, still mired in the 20th century with primaries limited to registered party members, voting registration closed 30 days prior to an election, voting hours limited to a 12 hour period in a single day, and excuses required for absentee voting, can make it challenging, if not impossible, for people to exercise their right to vote. However, the obstacles presented by our antiquated laws are not the primary reasons why only approximately one-quarter of the three million registered voters in the Commonwealth voted in the 2018 primary election.
The chief reason millions of eligible Kentuckians did not cast their ballots was their dislike of the candidates and/or the campaign issues, followed by a belief that their single vote doesn’t make a difference, and a simple lack of interest in the election. Some of us continue cast our ballot in every election, even when our vote is against one candidate rather than for the other one. We continue to vote when doing so seems particularly quixotic (anyone remember John Anderson’s run for president?).
We go to the polls in spite of the small probability that our one vote will decide any single election. We vote because we recognize our ancestors’ painful, and often deadly struggle, for the right to do so.
The inconvenience of making arrangements to leave work, dealing with small children while standing in a line, rearranging appointments, or casting an absentee ballot seems minor in comparison to their sacrifices. Some of us vote as a form of altruism, out of concern for our fellow citizens. We vote because we believe doing so will make our state a better place for everyone. Voting is an expression of who we are as Americans. We are a democracy, and in a democracy, we have the right and the responsibility to vote. We vote because that small possibility of a single vote making the difference in an election actually can happen, even in Kentucky.
Last November, the Kentucky state House District 13 challenger won by a single vote in the initial election tally. After a recount, in which previously rejected absentee ballots were reviewed and counted, the official result was a tie. A single voter could have changed the outcome of that race.
There are critical statewide contests on the primary ballots this year, including the gubernatorial and attorney general races. The winners of the November election will determine the direction of the Commonwealth for the next four years. This primary election is our only opportunity to have a say in selecting the party candidates who best represent our values.
By choosing not to go to the polls, we give up our chance to elect representatives who share our vision of the responsibility of our government and we concentrate decision-making into the hands of those who do participate. Casting a vote gives you a say in the democratic process. Failing to cast your vote silences your voice and increases the power of my ballot.
Vote in the primary election on Tuesday, May 21. Listen to the candidates, study their platforms, evaluate their positions, their actions and their beliefs. Decide what is important to you and get in the car, catch a bus, find a ride, or walk to the polls. Vote for the candidates who best represent your values. Every registered voter can, and should, make themself heard.
Kathryn Hendrickson of Maysville is a writer, lawyer, nurse and former bookstore owner. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.