Schwartz: Our votes are just the beginning

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

My first time voting was in the 2016 election. I was excited to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, eagerly awaiting morning of Nov. 9 when I’d say to myself, “I helped elect the first female president of the United States.”

I wanted the satisfaction of being part of something historic. Instead, the results made me disillusioned. Why had I even bothered going through the trouble of getting myself an absentee ballot if it didn’t make a difference? It felt like my vote just didn’t matter.

Two years later, it’s easy to feel that way again. While Democrats winning back control of the House of Representatives is certainly something to celebrate, the 2018 midterms could best be described as a mixed bag. Take my home state of Florida, to where I had meticulously mailed my absentee ballot once again. We didn’t have a great night.

While I knew it would be a close gubernatorial race, I really had faith that we’d make history by electing Andrew Gillum as our first black governor. But I watched that one percentage point between him and Ron DeSantis refuse to budge, thinking once again, “My vote didn’t matter.”

But then I saw the results of Florida’s constitutional amendments. Amendment 4, which restores the voting rights of most convicted felons after they complete their sentences, passed overwhelmingly with 64.4 percent of the vote. Because of this bipartisan effort, approximately 1.2 million people have now regained the right to vote in Florida. This includes almost 18 percent of the state’s potential black voters, who have been disproportionately incarcerated and can now have a tangible effect on future elections. Make no mistake — this is historic. And I’m proud to be one of over 5 million Floridians who helped make it happen.

That’s the thing about voting: It may feel pointless when the causes and candidates you checked off on your ballot lose, but it’s incredibly empowering when they win. You feel part of something bigger than yourself, like you truly made a difference. It can be electrifying.

We may find out within the next few days that 2018 had one of the highest voter turnouts of any midterm election. That so many people were able to be mobilized to vote this year should be in itself a cause for celebration, regardless of the outcomes of individual races. Now, more of us actually care about this country that is greater than ourselves.

What if there was a way to harness that energy to power something extraordinary beyond the midterms — beyond any election, for that matter? Voting was an important first step — now it’s time to do the real work of organizing, educating and holding our elected officials accountable. Yes, filling out a ballot can make history. But some of this country’s greatest moments have happened without a polling place in sight, when people fought for what they believed in and put pressure on their leaders to make change. I think we’ll find doing that even more empowering than voting for someone who won.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.