We are stronger when everyone participates

From December, 15 1788 to January 10, 1789 the United States held its first presidential election under the newly ratified Constitution.  Only white men who owned property could vote.  In the over 200 years since that election, we’ve expanded the franchise to women, people of color, and the young.  And while this progress moved painfully slow at times we now live in a democracy where over 227 million Americans are eligible to cast a ballot.  Yet, just 36.3 percent (approximately 82 million) of Americans participated in this year’s election.  Only in the 1942 midterm election was turnout lower.  Just seven states recorded turnouts of over 50 percent and no state topped 60 percent.  In Pennsylvania, only 36.1 percent of eligible voters turned out. 

Who or what is to blame for this? According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent of those who registered to vote but didn’t vote, said that they had a work or school conflict, were too busy, ill, or out of town.   Another 20 percent said they didn’t like the candidates or issues on the ballot, and 10 percent said they had a technical issues such as a recent move or trouble finding transportation to the polls.  These are depressing statistics and don’t even take into account those who did not even register. 

As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1967, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.”  While the Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes, too many Americans still cannot afford to cast a ballot.  Supporters of voter ID laws and other impediments to voting claim that such requirements protect our democracy from voter fraud.  But the real fraud is the barriers to access.  How can we trust a democracy where too many people cannot participate?  What does it say when so many people choose to stay home? 

In many instances, individuals cannot even get the time off work to vote.  Employers in 26 states are not required to give their workers paid leave to vote.  In 19 states, employers are not required to let their employees leave work to vote at all.  Many Americans cannot simply afford the 1-3 hours of unpaid time that voting often requires.  An individual working a 40-hour job would forgo 5 percent of their weekly salary if they took off two hours to vote.  In this spirit of extending voting rights, I introduced a bill, the Time Off to Vote Act which would require employers to grant their workers at least two hours of paid leave to vote in federal elections.  Voting is not a luxury good; it is a fundamental right and we cannot afford laws that push people out of the electorate. 

Teddy Roosevelt said, “the government is us; we are the government, you and I.”  But we are only the government in so much as we choose to participate in the government.  As Americans we’re blessed to live in a great democracy, a democracy we’ve fought hard for.  Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.  Elected officials must do a better job of showing their constituents that government can work for them.  It is our responsibility to end gridlock and restore faith in government.   To those that voted, thank you, to those that did not, I urge you make your voice heard.  We are stronger when everyone participates. 

Cartwright has represented Pennsylvania’s 17 Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Natural Resources and the Oversight and Government Reform committees.




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