On May 8, The Stanford Review published an article entitled “Don’t Get Out the Vote.” The title is self-explanatory.
When I first saw the article, I drew a heavy sigh, because that’s my standard response to most articles from The Review, as I generally disagree with them on most issues. And normally, that would have been that.
But this time, I felt compelled to respond by the article’s subtitle:
“Stanford students’ efforts to encourage democratic participation, while noble, would be better invested elsewhere.”
So, hi, my name is Terence, and I’m one of those Stanford students who encourages democratic participation by helping you register to vote, and I’m here to explain why my time is pretty well-invested where it currently is. Between me and my fellow SIG (Stanford in Government) members, we’ve registered voters at our own dorms, at other dorms, at events, at Admit Weekend and at local high schools, churches and community centers. All told, we’ve registered hundreds, if not thousands of people, but it would apparently be better, according to The Review, if we just used that time to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “work minimum wage jobs and send the earnings to DR Congo to buy mosquito nets.” Why, you ask?
Well, it appears that The Review fails to see the importance of an individual’s vote. It claims that “on average, a voter in America has a 1 in 60 million chance of deciding a presidential election.” And as to the work we volunteers do by registering people to vote? Well, The Review claims that “the chance that turning out… 10,000 people nationally… changes the election is less than 0.02 percent.”
I found this argument to be oddly nihilist and, for lack of a better word, strange. The same logic simply wouldn’t work if we apply it to comparable scenarios: That bottle you recycled yesterday probably won’t be the thing that tips the scale and halts climate change; your $500 property tax assessment this year probably won’t be the thing that keeps the country solvent; hell, my grandfather fought in Vietnam, and given that there were about 2.3 million other people also fighting there, his being there probably wasn’t the thing that decided the outcome of the war.
But that doesn’t mean that any of these things are meaningless – throwing a plastic bottle into the landfill is wrong, tax evasion is illegal and, well, you definitely shouldn’t discredit someone’s military service. The point is, it’s a great big world out there — and it shouldn’t be surprising that, in general, the actions of individual human beings are not exactly influential in causing massive amounts of change. And sure, this might justify some angsty, pseudo-philosophical existential crisis; it is not, however, a valid argument for not voting.
Besides, the point of registering people to vote isn’t to change election outcomes. Granted, if a candidate pays for the efforts, it’s intended to register potential supporters to ensure victory. But, for nonpartisan organizations like SIG, the only goal is to register as many voters as possible, regardless of political affiliation.
And that’s because voting is fundamentally not about picking winners and losers — a coin flip can do the job just fine — it’s about the process of civic engagement, of people taking part in self-government and of citizens realizing their political agency — perhaps for the very first time. And as someone who had the privilege of actually running a polling place, it was a tremendous sight that I was fortunate enough to witness with my own eyes.
It’s 8:10 a.m. on Election Day. The first voter — a jovial, balding old man with a cowboy hat — walks in. On his way out, I inform him that he was the very first voter in the precinct. He shakes his head in dismay and promises that he would get his neighbors to turn out. Sure enough, when he returns again at 7:30 p.m. to ask, “How’d I do? Did they come in?” I am able to happily report that he was able to get 15 of the 16 registered voters in his apartment complex to come vote. About half of them mentioned that they had only shown up because the man told them to.
At 5:30 p.m., a couple who only showed up to help their second-grader complete his school assignment of observing the polling place discover that there are election materials translated into their native Korean, and vote for the very first time.
At 6:25 p.m., an old woman who had voted in her first election for Adlai Stevenson and in every election since shuffles in to cast her ballot.
At 7:02 p.m., a college student who had just turned 18 three days ago proudly picks up her very first ballot with a broad smile.
At 7:30 p.m., a disabled veteran comes in to exercise the right he fought and bled for to defend.
At various times throughout the day, immigrants who had escaped countries from the Soviet Union to communist China come in to exercise a right that seems all the more precious when living in its absence.
At 7:45 p.m., a man, despite being in a rush to get somewhere, waits persistently by the ballot box until it makes a beeping sound to indicate that his vote had been counted before feeling comfortable to leave.
At 7:59 p.m., a man literally somersaults into the polling place, three seconds before it closed, so he could cast his vote…
I think my precinct was fairly average — just 2,000-odd voters living in a few of your typical SoCal suburban blocks. Yet, these are just a fraction of all the extraordinary happenings I saw in the 12 hours that the polling place was open. I don’t know who these people voted for — it doesn’t matter to me one bit. What matters a great deal, however, is that as I closed down the polling place that night, I felt a little surge of optimism for America’s future. And I know, deep in my heart, that whoever registered those voters sure didn’t waste their time.
P.S.: If you haven’t already, you have until May 23 to register to vote in the California primary elections. Go turn out and vote.
Contact Terence Zhao at terencezhao ‘at’ stanford.edu.