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Mathew: Year-round civic engagement more powerful than voting

Kevin Mathew, Copy Chief

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If you did not realize Tuesday was Election Day, you must not have checked your Facebook newsfeed. I felt my patriotism swell when I saw posts celebrating the democratic process. But for every celebration post, I saw just as many posts declaring that if you did not vote, you should be shamed. Although I understand the sentiment, the dogma surrounding our social requirement to vote needs to be carefully evaluated.

Voting has a double benefit. There is the benefit you give the candidate you support and there is the benefit you feel for participating in the political process. However, the first is a nominal effect at best, as the odds that my vote will be the deciding vote are astronomical. The majoritarian system of the United States, where a winner takes all, necessarily gives rise to two primary candidates trying to split votes near the median. What this means for citizens is that your vote has an extremely minor chance to have an impact on which of two similar candidates takes office.

This is the point where folks usually stop listening to me, but bear with me. I am not critiquing voting, just our understanding of it.

Political scientists are still puzzled by just how many citizens turn out consistently at every election. But remember, there are two benefits to voting.

I see every election day as a celebration of the incredible progress we have made in the past 300 years. Democracy has spread widely, and it suddenly is common sense that a government should represent the will of the people. But do not assume that those who do not celebrate loudly today are anti-democracy. There is much to be done, and political progress grows only with constant attention. Election Day is a celebration of the democratic process, but we must pay attention more than once every two years.

I could spend the rest of my column complaining about how voting works precisely in the United States, as it is easy to be discouraged when a carefully thought out decision counts the same as a random choice. But a careful, informed opinion is nowhere close to worthless. The political process is continuous, and with active voices we can continue to guide the United States toward a better representative democracy.

So celebrate today, but remember the somber reality. Your individual vote will almost never decide an election. While elections are a celebration of our recent understanding that the government must represent the people, after we understand our individual vote is not enough to change the world, we are freed to understand the task before us. In the 23 months without elections, we have the power to influence the candidates we will be presented with, the process of our elections and the general will of the people.

Although it is easy for pride to take over, to assume that non-voters have no right to complain, remember that our process is nowhere close to perfect. We have made incredible strides toward a truly representative government, but we need to positively encourage involvement year-round. The joy of the celebration can blind us into thinking a vote has fully expressed our voices. But when we recognize the limitations of our voting process, we become empowered to be daily activists, consistently holding our representatives accountable every day, every month, every year.

We all have a right to complain. Whether it is Election Day or not, every voice of every citizen must shout.

Kevin Mathew is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at kevinmathew2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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