I lived in a badly neglected neighborhood in a small Mid-Western city. The streets were full of potholes, the garbage was never collected on time, and when it was collected the streets were littered with garbage. It was always the last neighborhood to be cleared of snow or to have its streets salted. I finally got mad enough to complain at City Hall. The councilman I spoke to shrugged and said, "Well, nobody there votes!" I asked around the neighborhood and discovered that this was true. This was a Democratic neighborhood in a city that had voted Republican for one hundred years and wasn't about to change. So, nobody interested in the Democrats, which was almost everyone in that neighborhood, bothered to vote, it was all too obvious on the registration lists that nobody there was registered to vote, so the other neighborhoods, where people voted, got the city services. That's the way it goes in a lot of places. It took two years to get enough people to register to vote to make a big difference, but once the number of registered voters began to climb services began to improve and finally the neighborhood was taken as seriously as any other. The bonus was that Democrats began to be elected to local offices and eventually there was a Democratic mayor.
I will be grateful forever for the high school civics teacher who bored me to death but taught me about voting. To vote, you first have to register. Her advice was that, if you want to make a real difference in local politics in a place where one party holds all the power, register to vote in the primary for that party. You can only vote in one primary, the primary for the party you declare when you register. If one party has the power, whichever party it may be, you want to choose the candidates in that party who will run for office. It doesn't matter whether you belong to that party, or will vote for that party in the main election. The choice that's going to matter is the choice of the candidates of the party that is going to win. In that sense, the primary is the real election. If that party has become slovenly and corrupt, play a role in improving it. You can still work at building your own party, campaign for it, and vote for it, switching the party on your voter registration once your party has grown strong enough to have a fighting chance of success.
If you haven't registered to vote in this fall's election, depending on where you live you just might still have time. The cut-off date usually ranges from two weeks to a month before the date of the election. You can check your state's registration requirements on line. In most states you can download the registration form, fill it out, and mail it in, but the instructions for registering vary from state to state. If you aren't registered you can't vote. Later, you can register to vote in the next election if you can't register for this one. If you vote regularly, you won't have to re-register for later elections.
I?m impressed by how little many of the people on Gather, an obviously sophisticated, intelligent group, seem to know about voting, voting registration, and political parties. Yes, we have a two party system in the sense that either the Republicans or the Democrats normally win. There have been strong third parties in the past. There are plenty of smaller parties, many of them very active. New York State, for example, has 15 active political parties. An active small party can have a lot of local influence, forcing the large parties to sit up and take notice, especially when they do win some local seats, which does happen fairly regularly. You have to be registered to vote in an election. The general rules for registering to vote are that you be 18 or older, a citizen, in most places have never been convicted of a felony, and have lived at your current address for a certain period of time. College students can run into special problems proving that they should be entitled to vote in the area where they are going to school, but if you have established a home there, and have a job, you can insist that you have a right to register. The assumption often is that if you're a student your real home is elsewhere. Local political parties in college towns are wary of students and consider them apt to be liberal or, worse, radical. If you've missed voting in a long string of elections, you may have been taken off the books and will have to register again, so check your registration status well before the election. If you've changed your address, you should also change it on your registration. Your right to vote is a right worth protecting.
The sad truth is that the major political parties don't want us to vote. They want as few people to vote as they can get away with, and they want those who vote to be their loyal followers. If we've become disillusioned with politics and cynical about government, that delights them. For example, the Democrats are hoping that the Foley scandal will disgust many Republican voters, who won't bother to vote, and the Republicans are afraid that it probably will. That's part of the purpose of all the mud-slinging. Get disgusted enough and we're not likely to vote. Don?t fall for it. If we want them to clean up their collective acts, VOTE!
And if you don't vote – don't bother to complain about the aftermath. Nobody's going to bother to listen. They don't have to if we don't vote.