The 2020 presidential election, amid a global pandemic and a wave of social justice protests, is often called one of the most important in our lifetimes. I add my voice to that chorus in pleading: please vote.
Especially if you have ever felt left out or pushed out, speak up and push back, by voting.
This year, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s constitutional right to vote, every woman of voting age should know that although women vote at a higher rate than men, we filled just under one-fourth of seats in the 116th Congress: 26 percent in the Senate and 23.2 percent of voting representatives in the House. And that is a historical high.
Voters are already casting ballots for the presidential election. But if it is like most presidential elections dating back to 1976, research shows that only 55.7 percent to 58.3 percent of the voting-age population will vote, with lower participation by the young, the poor, or the nonwhite.
High turnout in presidential elections is very important, said 70 percent of respondents in a 2018 Pew Research survey. Yet, a recent New York Times analysis found that of 24 nations, 19 countries topped the U.S. in the percentage of turnout among registered voters ages 18-29. (The U.S. and Lithuania were both at 46 percent). Jamaica, Moldova, Chile, and Switzerland rounded out the bottom.
It remains an urgent matter in our schools, homes, and communities to define good citizenship. When it comes to voting, how do we explain the gap between our intentions and our actions? We should keep asking ourselves the question.
Is taking part in street protests or posting on social media enough if you don’t actually vote or even register to vote? What are schools doing to teach civics? How are parents preparing their children to become the next generation of voters? Are political leaders engaged enough in shaping citizens and talking to marginalized constituents?
Are Black children — and indeed all children — hearing the tales of poll taxes and literacy tests that their ancestors endured as they tried to vote? Do students know that it took the 1965 Voting Rights Act to begin knocking down state and local barriers to Black voting rights?
Continued voter suppression and disenfranchisement diminish voter rolls and turnout, according to scholars and activists. But as the marches outside our doors and the loud voices on TV these days indicate, Americans know the stakes are high on Nov. 3.
Here in New York City, a mayoral initiative called DemocracyNYC shows what government itself can do to expand access to voting and civic engagement. In the last three years, DemocracyNYC has helped 60,000 students ages 16-18 register and pre-register to vote by conducting drives in classrooms during a special week of civics lessons.
DemocracyNYC has also connected with other cities on election-related issues through our work with the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM). In August, we co-hosted — with USCM and Civic Cities — a virtual webinar, joined by representatives of 81 cities, to discuss policy issues and solutions around youth voter engagement and election administration.
I understand, from personal experience, the disconnect between having a power and exercising that power. As I came of age during the 1960s protest era, my own parents — like many of their time — were not vocal about their views on government or civic engagement. I was even uncertain of their political party affiliations. Still, I grew up to see myself as an activist, advocating for the rights of women and African Americans.
But I was an adult working in government before I truly understood government’s ability to affect profound, rapid change and to represent my interests. My eyes were opened because I was in the rooms with those making decisions about jobs, education and housing that deeply affect our lives.
If you take my own youthful ignorance of the power of government and you add a lack of understanding about the mechanics of voter registration — how to actually vote — and no real connection to those who govern, it is easy to fathom why some see voting as the province of “other people.”
We cannot outrun the sins of our history, but I am heartened by the ways to cast a ballot this election cycle and the plethora of voting information. In the names of so many who for too long could not exercise their rights, I ask all of us who are able: Speak up. Speak out. Vote.
Chirlane McCray is First Lady of New York City; her husband is Mayor Bill deBlasio. McCray created ThriveNYC. She also spearheads the Cities Thrive Coalition, with more than 200 mayors, county officials and thought leaders from all 50 states. She was named to TIME Magazine’s 50 Most Influential People in Health Care for 2018. Follow her on Twitter @NYCFirstLady