Op-Ed: Your vote is the history you write — honor the patriots that suffered for it

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 1:48pm

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Years, decades, centuries from now, students will take a constitutional law class like the one I teach with professor Pamela Brandwein. They may learn, as they do now, about slavery, eugenics, Japanese internment camps and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. They may also learn about how American political history is a story of thoughtful, determined people repeatedly redeeming its promise of liberty, human dignity and equality. And they will read about the history you choose to make in the coming days.

You must vote. There are few demands your country makes of you as a citizen, like jury duty and voting. Without those demands, citizenship is meaningless. The development of modern democratic states has transformed the world. Billions have been lifted even in the last 25 years. Violence within and between states has declined. The problems we face, like the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty, violations of civil rights, debt, unstable global alliances and eroding democratic norms, are ones we can solve. The primary way we solve problems at a societal level is through voting. Research, by our own professor Arthur Lupia and others, shows the ability of individual voters acting in good faith to make rational choices in the aggregate — one of the miracles of democracy.

The moral failure of not voting is graver than selfishness. It’s disrespectful to your fellow citizens if you don’t voice your shared right to think for yourself and contribute to our country — and particularly disrespects those who have this right denied to them. It dishonors the millions of righteous men and women, many of your ancestors and mine, who have been beaten, raped and tortured, who have been given farcical literacy tests and chased after with dogs and fire houses, who suffered through pogroms, book burnings, lynchings and wars; heroes who died in the mud in Belgium and on the beaches of Normandy, who marched hundreds of miles to reservations and re-education programs, who huddled in ships and survived inquisitions, who dared to sit in the wrong place at the lunch counter and on the bus, who were figuratively crucified for loving the wrong person, who were murdered because of the color of their skin or the god they prayed to, who were shot in the sanctity of their own bedroom, who voiced their undying belief in the United States even while their government shipped them away on trains and locked them away in desert camps.

The rights many enjoy today — to work in just conditions, to a fair trial, to speak and assemble, to privacy, to our own belongings, to freedom from torture, to freedom from arbitrary arrest, to think and read what we want — are underwritten by the bloodshed of braver forebears. Some are still denied them. These rights are not our assured American destiny. 

Every morning, many of your fellow citizens wake up willing to die for a belief in these liberties. The least you can do if you are able is to walk down a few flights of stairs or a couple blocks to drop off a ballot, or to wait in line and mark a piece of paper. Do it knowing that many could not, and some still cannot. Because all of those people who came before you and fought believed, as you should, that those pieces of paper change the course of history.

Vote.

Jacob Walden is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan and can be reached at jawalden@umich.edu.


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