Apathy Alert: Remember How Many People Died for Our Right to Vote

FBI_Poster_of_Missing_Civil_Rights_WorkersNovember 3, 2015 was Election day. My wife and I went to vote as we always do. I believe that the right to vote is a cornerstone of a constitutional democracy. It is fundamental that everyone vote.

As I sit in my office writing this, I gaze up to the poster on my wall which states “1954-1972 All Died for Your Vote-Register Now.” On the poster are the names of 21 Americans who fought for the right to vote and were killed. They include Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Martin Luther King, Jr.  When asked why I vote, one of the answers I give is that the vote is a cherished right that should not be squandered and that I vote because voting is an affirmation of our democracy and I do so out of respect for and in memory to the many heros who have died, been arrested and/or been beaten when seeking the right to vote.

if we do have uncontested elections, do we need to go through the charade of holding an election and keeping all of the polls open?

When my wife and I arrived at our polling place at 9:20 am we were the only people in the place actually there to vote. For the first time in my 50 years of voting, no other people were voting when I voted. My wife was the 8th voter and I was the 9th voter in our Assembly District. The people running the polling place were professional, friendly and upbeat. However, something was wrong. How could we—the visible symbol of open free elections—be conducting an election where so few people were participating. Why?

I was instructed to vote for 6 Judges whose names appeared on the ballot. When I looked more carefully I realized that I was participating in an uncontested election. It did not matter who I voted for; all 6 candidates were going to be elected.

I thought about the stories I watched on TV and read in the papers about how other countries had “sham” or “rigged” elections and how we Americans looked negatively on nations who have uncontested elections, questioning how that could happen.

As I filled out my ballot and inserted it into the computer machine, I realized again that my voting made no difference.

As I was walking out of the polling place on West 73rd Street in Manhattan, no one was coming in to vote. There were no lines of people outside waiting to cast their ballot. It left me with a burning question—how could this happen?

Why weren’t there more judicial candidates running? Why were there no contests? Is it because the political establishment is controlling who becomes a candidate? Is the message that is conveyed that if you want to be a judge you do not run against the political establishment? If you buck the system and run as an independent, not only will you lose but the “political machine” will never forget you took them on. And, of course, who makes up the “political machine”?

And finally, How much did it cost to keep my West 73rd street polling place open all day? Could public money be spent more responsibly?

Despite my experience today, I will vote –again and again. It is who I am. It is what we must all do. But, we need to rethink how our elections are conducted, who winds up on the ballot and who controls the process. We can and must do better in the future.

Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer, served as executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.  Apathy Alert: Remember How Many People Died for Our Right to Vote