Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Why I Voted
My vote didn’t count for much yesterday. Because Illinois was not a swing state, the presidential candidates, for the most part, ignored me. When I walked into the voting booth I already knew that the President had our electoral votes regardless of any choice I might make. My congress person is regularly re-elected by margins of between two and three to one. No impact there! My state senator and state representative ran unopposed and lesser offices in Cook County are generally decided by the party apparatus with little or no opposition. By the time voters got to the polls in Chicago, most everything was a done deal. No, my vote didn’t count for much on Tuesday.
This could, I suppose, make me rather cynical about the value of exercising my voting privileges. What’s the point if, for some voters, it’s more or less going through the motions? Civic duty is one answer. Citizenship brings with it certain obligations, even if they are not legally enforced, and voting is a prime example. Discharging my duty as a voter is part of the social contract, a witness to a set of mutual expectations and promises that help weave the fabric of our democracy together. In this sense voting is not about political impact, but about participating in the civic ritual that continues to sustain our common life.
More compelling for me, voting is a moral obligation, an act of public gratitude to those who, at great sacrifice, obtained the right for so many to vote over the last century. I was a teenager in 1964 when college students from the north traveled to Mississippi to join courageous African Americans in a massive voter registration effort. We listened, rapt, to some of them describe their experience at church camp that year. Martyrdom followed for many, including James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, along with eight black Mississippians who were slain, one of them fourteen and five of them never identified. Eighty Freedom Summer workers were beaten, over a thousand jailed, nearly forty churches bombed or burned. Freedom Summer was a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement and its legacy, in part, was represented at the podium at McCormick Place Tuesday night.
The struggle for women’s suffrage took place long before I was born, and while it did not result in the same kind of violent reaction from those determined to withhold the franchise, it exacted a heavy toll. The symbolic launch at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention in 1848 led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, joined a few years later by Susan B. Anthony, began a seventy year struggle that included arrests, jail, and public ridicule. That legacy was also on display Tuesday as women competed in Senate, House, gubernatorial, and many other races from across the political spectrum.
There was nothing heroic, grand, or even particularly useful about my walk through the cold mist on Tuesday evening to cast my vote in a dimly lit utility room in a nearby apartment building. But as I filled in my ballot with its mostly pointless choices there was a real sense of grandeur in the act, a grandeur that illumined the crummy little space housing this civic ritual. I remembered, and gave thanks, for those whose courage, sacrifice and determination had expanded our social covenant beyond its former constraints of gender and race, thereby enlarging our notion of what “We, the people” really means. The people who handed me my ballot, and helped me place it through the scanner were all citizens who at one time would have been denied entrance to any polling place. What a sight for those with eyes to see, even in cynical times.
Like any liturgy, my vote didn’t change anything concretely. It was an exercise, an act of thanksgiving and expectation, rehearsing a long historical narrative often marked by profound struggle and loss, an acknowledgment of how far we have yet to go, a sign and an instrument of the promise that beckons. That’s why I voted on Tuesday.
John H. Thomas
November 8, 2012