"Some elections are razor-thin. In 2016, the margin of victory for Donald Trump in the swing states that he won was less than 1 percent," says Dr. Cobb. But it's not just the presidential election you need to think about every four years—between general elections, it's the midterms, it's all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, it's 100 seats in the Senate, it's 50 governorships, it's your mayor, it's ballot measures, and more, she adds. "Even if you're in a state where it's likely that one of the two major presidential candidates will win because it's a 'safe state,' there are other down-ballot races that are not necessarily safe. Your vote makes a huge difference."
Simply put, voting is power, says Dr. Cobb. "The theory of democracy is that it is a government for and by the people, and the vote is the basic building block that gives people the power to control their government and to shape what policies they want and the future direction of their town, state, and country," she says, adding that your vote should serve as "the great equalizer." But that's not always the case.
There are many people for whom the right to vote is taken away. Discriminatory voter ID laws prevent millions of people from voting each year. Take for example a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law requiring formerly incarcerated people to pay all fines and fees associated with their sentence before they're allowed to vote; it kept 1 million Floridians from voting.
"Why would people spend so much time trying to take political power away from people?" asks Dr. Cobb. "Because political power actually matters. It makes a big difference in our lives, makes a big difference to the kind of economic power that we have to the distribution of government resources to communities. It makes a big difference to the kinds of policies that we're going to have in the future."
"Why would people spend so much time trying to take political power away from people?"
Lonna Atkeson, PhD, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, explains that voting restrictions were brought over from Britain.
"[These laws] weren't initially discriminatory policies," says Dr. Atkeson. "When only white male property holders were allowed to vote, voting restrictions existed. After the Civil War, those same measures were used to deny African Americans the right to vote."
And these laws vary from state to state—in Vermont and Maine, for example, people in prison can vote. Dr. Atkeson explains that the ruling on Florida stems directly from a 2018 vote. Nearly two-thirds of voters in Florida chose to amend the state constitution and allow felons to vote. "What's the corrective measure? You create a new initiative and you put it on the ballot," says Dr. Atkeson. "The good thing is that democracy is an iterative process. And it's something that we're always building on and moving forward with."
Voting in the 2020 general election was especially tricky. Social distancing rules, paired with a high turnout of voters (as seen in the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 primary elections), made poll lines much longer. Millions of people, some for the first time, voted by mail, and not every state was properly equipped to handle such volume of absentee ballots. Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, vote completely by mail, and Montana and Arizona have a permanent vote by mail lists that include 70 percent of the state population. But other states aren't as accustomed to the vote-by-mail process.
"States that haven't built the [vote-by-mail] system, their voter registration file is a lot dirtier, with many more errors in it," says Dr. Atkeson. Using inaccurate lists to mail out ballots means many ballots may never arrive at their intended destinations. And if you make a mistake on your ballot such as the wrong zip code or omitting an apartment number, it might not be counted. An NPR analysis found that within the 2020 primary elections held before July 2020 "at least 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots were rejected because they arrived past the deadline, often through no fault of the voter."
To make sure your vote counts, Dr. Cobb explains that you have to do a bit more planning than usual. First step, look to your state's website for voting information and instructions for how to register to vote—and do it now.
"There are a lot of organizations that are I think trying to do really good work, and I'm delighted that they're all out there doing it. But at the end of the day, it is the state that is providing the reliable information about when voting is going to happen and who to contact, etc. And in most states, that's the Secretary of State's website," says Dr. Cobb. "Look early at what the overall plan is in your state: Is there early voting? If there is early voting, where it is going to be held? What is the process of mail ballots? What do you feel comfortable doing? And then really having a plan for how you're going to vote."
"Serving as a poll worker is one of the best things you can do this year to serve your country."
If you're mailing your ballot, send it in as early as possible. If your state has early in-person voting, Dr. Cobb says to take advantage of it in order to prevent long lines on election day, when it's expected that there will be a shortage of poll workers. "Anybody who's interested in getting involved, serving as a poll worker is one of the best things you can do this year to serve your country," she says.
The right to vote is precious. If you have it, you should use it.
"It can be quite disconcerting to have a barrage of negative news every single day and feel powerless," says Dr. Cobb. "But there's actually nothing like participating and actually doing something that is also one of the like healthy things you can do for yourself and for your community. Staying on the sidelines is disempowering; voting is always empowering."
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