While much attention has rightfully been paid to how to vote during the pandemic, we have been thinking about why it is so important to vote in the first place. In a democracy, the individual act of voting itself is a crucial step.
On the basis of our constitutional, historical, legislative, and normative foundation, Americans have come to cherish and debate many basic democratic rights. Every day, people exercise rights to assemble, speak, or advocate for specific causes. At election time, we gain the added option of exercising our voting rights.
Using these rights helps ensure we have these rights long into the future. If we neglect voting or other rights, we run the risk that they will atrophy over time. Think of democratic rights like muscles in a democratic body. The more we use them, the stronger the muscles become and thus the stronger and healthier the body as a whole.
Take the example of political lawn signs in Connecticut. Signs may or may not change many minds, but they do symbolize free speech. Why? They show that people are comfortable publicly stating their political opinions. Freedom of expression is one of the key criteria that makes a country democratic. Imagine, in contrast, a society where people were afraid to put out lawn signs for fear that they might be punished for stating their views out loud.
If any politicians need reminding, the act of voting signals to them that people care about that right enough to use it. Presumably, that sends a stronger, even more important signal: If I use my right to vote, that may well mean I will fight to protect my right to vote in a fair and efficient manner. When voting comes under attack, research suggests it may galvanize people to vote.
Voting also gives us an opportunity to contribute our thoughts to future public policy decisions, or as Harold Lasswell once said, “Who gets what, when, and how?” How should government resources be allocated? What issues need government attention? Voting is the way we translate preferences on issues into representation in government and in turn pressure elected officials to take action.
We are not suggesting our democracy is always a smooth, well-functioning machine. It is not. The right to vote is under threat in multiple ways, from unfair purges of voter names from voting lists to troubling implementation of voter ID laws.
We also see that the closing of much-needed polling places and drop boxes, disproportionately where many Black and brown voters live, makes voting harder. Studies show that predominantly minority precincts have double the wait time as predominantly white ones. While long lines are a sign of praiseworthy determination, the voting process should not have to last hours. Such waits may essentially prevent some people — especially those with fewer resources — from voting at all as a result of work or caregiving responsibilities.
Our democracy is a process, always evolving and striving toward an ideal. In part, we see U.S. political history as a struggle over defining and expanding U.S. democracy, a struggle that continues today. But by voting in this election, each of us contributes in one meaningful way toward strengthening this essential facet of our political life.
Jeremy Pressman is an Associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of, The sword is not enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the limits of military force (Manchester University Press, 2020). Pressman and Hayes wrote this op-ed as part of an initiative of the American Political Science Association’s Election Assistance Task Force.
Thomas Hayes is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. His teaching and research focus on American politics.