October 28, 2000: The line to the village’s single polling station in the wood stove-warmed school stretched out the classroom door into the increasingly frigid evening. Despite the weather and crowded conditions, voters continued to come, most of them trudging through fields after a hard day of manual labor. Those too old or infirm arrived in horse-drawn wooden carts. Stooped-over grandmothers in slippers and threadbare vests. Veterans of the region’s protracted wars, their status evident by a missing arm, leg, or hand. Aged voters, too poor to afford glasses, passing down the line a single pair of smudged spectacles so the next person could also see the ballot.
I was in Eastern Europe’s autonomous region of Kosovo as an election supervisor, monitoring their first election after a decade of civil war. Despite the many physical, ethnic, and historical obstacles, almost 80 percent of Kosovo’s voters turned out that day to elect their mayors and town officials.
Kosovo’s citizen commitment toward that election strikes me everytime I cast a ballot here at home, where voter turnout pales by comparison despite a system that makes it easy. In Washington, we register to vote when getting a driver’s license, then we have two to three weeks to vote by mail in the comfort of our homes. Such accessibility is rarely afforded to most emerging democracies.
Yet only 60 percent of Washington’s voting age population bothered to cast a ballot in the high- profile 2016 general election. Nearly 25 percent of the voting-age population didn’t even register to vote. The numbers are even more dismal for special elections focused on local public infrastructure issues or who will serve as county judges. In November 2017, only 35.6 percent of Washington voters bothered to return the ballot they found in their mailbox.
Historically, our senior demographic votes in higher ratios than most, but even that’s changing. AARP reported that 45 percent of the electorate in the 2016 election was 50+ years old. While that may sound impressive, the Pew Research Center concluded of those results, “Boomer and older voters represented fewer than half of all voters for the first time in decades.” A close look at Washington’s 2017 election data reveals a pattern consistent with other age groups. While about 85 percent of eligible voters over age 54 were registered to vote, only 46.2 percent of 55-64-year-olds and 61 percent of voters over age 65 turned out. The message? Eligibility to vote means nothing if you don’t seal the civic deal by casting a ballot.
To improve turnout, the 2018 Washington State Legislature passed five bills that make Washington one of the most progressive states for voter access. Beginning in 2019, residents who are citizens will be automatically registered to vote when applying for or changing a driver’s license or identification card. Teenagers can preregister to vote when they get their driver’s license at age 16 or 17 and be automatically added to voter rolls at age 18. Schools are required to coordinate a January voter registration day; the timeline to register before election day has been shortened; and Washington recently announced it will include a postage-paid envelope with ballots in 2018, making ours the only state to eliminate the lack of a stamp as a voting barrier.
But voting is just one act. I’ve become particularly fond of the activist refrain, “This is what democracy looks like,” because it speaks to the broader responsibility of civic engagement to shape policy at every level. Fire and police protection are local ballot-box issues. So are public library services, upgrades to your local schools, and the selection of port commissioners and mayors. In Washington, many issues are decided by state citizen initiative. It’s how the minimum wage was increased and recreational pot was legalized. Boomer-centric issues such as cuts to Social Security and Medicare may get decided in the other Washington, but the 2,300- plus miles between us and the federal Capitol shouldn’t deter us from engaging in the effort it will take to preserve the benefits we’ve earned from decades of work—by us as well as the generations behind us.
No matter what your political persuasion, the candidates who run for office and those who win should hear from you before they cast a vote that decides your future (and before you cast a ballot that decides theirs). Most elected officials have a story about a bill or regulation they sponsored because a single constituent approached them, provided the research, and thoughtfully assisted in the work it took to be a civic partner. School board and city council meetings have public comment sessions. You can write a letter, send an email, make a phone call, attend a legislative town hall or—even better—sponsor a neighborhood meeting.
Partner is the key word. Our obligation as participants in a democracy is both civic engagement and civil discourse. Civil and civic have the same etymology, both coming from the Latin word “civis.” Elected officials are human beings. Their political office is a part-time or temporary job and particularly at the local and state level, it’s a job with limited resources. Citizens have a job as well. Our role in the process is to educate ourselves with verifiable information, to inform, to lobby, and to be present at influential, decision-making points in the process.
Many of us came of age at a heightened time of citizen activism—the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Era, and Women’s Movement. The marches, sit-ins, and walkouts of the 1960s and ’70s were multi-generational and many of us find ourselves protesting today in new multi-generational efforts. There was a lot of gray hair under the pink knitted hats of the Women’s Marches. Photos of the recent statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado showed veteran educators and grandparents holding picket signs. And MeToo is not just a hashtag for Hollywood’s young generation of stars. Twenty-first century activism has more tools at its disposal then we had in our twenties. We can encourage friends to join us on Facebook. Post photos of the rally on Instagram. Conduct a planning session on Skype or any number of video-conferencing tools.
Our generation has a unique contribution to the political process—the long view. It’s time for us to serve as civic role models. We bring to today’s politics a wisdom burnished by decades of marriage, partnership, and family dynamics; of running a home; and of navigating health care, education systems, and workplace politics. We understand compromise. We realize change takes time. We grew up when being civil wasn’t just an expectation, it was the norm.
So we shouldn’t just vote. We should sit with family and friends to discuss what’s on the ballot and cast our votes and mail the ballots together. (Why not make an event out of it?) We should encourage the 16- and 17-year-olds in our circle to take advantage of the new voter preregistration law. We should attend school board meetings and legislative town halls, speaking out with conviction but also as well-informed, civil citizens. And some of us should take the ultimate step of civic engagement and run for office. Because that is what democracy looks like. It looks like us.
Ann Randall is an independent traveler and writer who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. A former educator, she now observes international elections and does volunteer work in India. Her articles have appeared in online and print publications and she maintains a blog, PeregrineWoman.com.