“Have you registered to vote?” is an impossible question to escape. I’ve found that I can’t walk through the Diag, scroll through Instagram or even order a pizza without encountering some iteration of this question. Dominating nearly every space, it certainly is a pertinent question given our current environment. Assuming the answer to this question is yes, as we transition into this election and prepare for electoral outcomes, we need to ask ourselves a different question: What is our role in making this nation a functioning and healthy democracy? 

A healthy democracy requires far more than just electoral participation, including the ongoing intellectual and physical engagement of an informed citizenry. Think of it this way — as students, we need to do more than just register for the semester and pick our preferred classes; participation like staying informed, having discussions and completing other course tasks are essential to succeed both in a course and in democratic society. While voting is essential, using our voices through other means of engagement can further progress our country toward justice and equality — the highest ideals of democracy.

Simply put, voting is a civic duty: something we should see as a first step or baseline of political participation if we have the privilege to vote. In particular, as a white, cisgender man, I believe it is my duty to vote, as voting is one of many tools to amplify and represent the voices of those who are otherwise silenced in government and the electoral process by gerrymandering, iterations of poll taxes for the formerly incarcerated, racially targeted polling station closures, other forms of voter suppression and more. I can use my privilege to support and vote for candidates who commit to expanding the franchise. I can have conversations with those who can’t vote and consider their perspective on ballot issues and candidates. I can vote for candidates who I believe will enact systemic change.

Voting has the potential to make change through the electoral process. At the very least, it can publicly signal approval or disapproval of a candidate or set of ideas. While a candidate or party may not satisfy all or even most of my policy preferences, I don’t believe it’s fair to let my ideals blind me from the reality others may face as a consequence of my non-voting. 

That being said, voter shaming, or bullying people into voting, does little to motivate non-voters, often fails to recognize the difficulties and barriers that exist for many and can turn off people, even usual voters, from voting in the future. Voter shaming has taken many forms over the years, from callout posts on Instagram to postcards with voting records attached. This unproductive behavior should be modified. Recognizing any inherent privilege we may have and refocusing on positive motivations for voting will bring more people into the fold of electoral politics and democratic society.

While voting in national elections is a necessary civic duty, a functional democracy needs more than people showing up to vote once every four years. In our democratic republic, we elect officials who theoretically represent us in federal politics. After an election, we are left to consider members of Congress relatively unaccountable until their next election cycle. While we can’t recall members of Congress via election, contacting them about issues you care about by calling or writing their offices, sending emails or using services like ResistBot can actually have a significant effect on the way elected officials vote. I urge everyone to find issues they care about —whether they be racial justice in the United States, solidarity with Armenia, the environmental crisis or practically anything else — and call your congressional representatives daily or weekly. 

An action as simple as leaving a message for a staffer to pass along or having a conversation with a college intern, while both fun and frustrating, can ultimately push our Congress and democracy to listen more closely to the people it claims to represent. If we all took the four to six minutes of our day to make these calls, public officials would have no choice but to rethink some of their less favorable positions and be more representative of their constituents. 

In addition to conventional politics, activist work is imperative to steer our country and government to be one that is truly functional, healthy and just. Silence on issues that do not affect us directly is what created our current situation: a system that only supports those already in privileged groups. While I am not suggesting people spend the entirety of their free time taking to the streets to protest in person, it is crucial to consider the reality of those who have no choice but to do so to survive, like those targeted for their race or gender identity or those evicted from housing.

A multitude of options exist besides protesting: providing mutual aid, writing awareness pieces, having difficult discussions with friends and family, standing up for classmates and many other methods. I urge everyone to find ways to get involved in protesting, organizing or supporting the work of others. Work we do outside the conventional electoral norms, especially in terms of independent impact, is equally if not more important than what happens at the polls.

Looking for ways to get involved? There are plenty of brilliant initiatives and organizations at the University of Michigan and beyond that are working to create a more just and functional democracy, both through electoral politics and other means. The Prison Birth Project, a student organization that “aims to inspire students and community members to advocate for incarcerated mothers and birthing people,” is an example of a student organization working to better the community through participation. The PBP uses tools like pressuring elected officials into action and providing direct aid to help make the justice system actually judicial and aid incarcerated mothers and birthing people. Other advocacy groups like Students Demand Action and Students Demand Representation use similar methods to make their voices heard. These groups and efforts are what make democracy work beyond the use of the ballot.

Overall, participation in electoral processes and other avenues of engagement is vital to the health of our democracy. When we use our voice to help our peers in whatever capacity we can, we take another step toward creating a government by the people and for the people, and a society that truly values and respects all of its members. Like with our education, our democratic society will reap the benefits we sow. We need a student mindset of growth, change and constant learning to put our society on the right track. Get ready to vote, and get ready for what comes next.

Andrew Gerace can be reached at agerace@umich.edu.

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