Should You Register to Vote?

Many of us — more than 50 million citizens in this country — are eligible to vote, but do not bother to register. Every citizen of the U. S. over the age of 18 is eligible to register and vote.

In all but four states, you must register before Election Day in order to vote. Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin allow their citizens to register on Election Day. North Dakota is the most voter-friendly of all — it doesn't require you to register at all!

Every other state requires registration in advance of Election Day. Most states close the registration period 30 days before they hold the election. You must be registered in order to vote for any elective office in the U. S., from president to township advisory board. You only have to register once as long as you live at the same address and vote now and again.

Upsides and downsides of registering

Maybe you're not registered because you've convinced yourself that you should avoid politics. However, avoiding politics is not possible. Political decisions will be made for you even if you elect not to participate. You still have to pay taxes even if you don't vote. Elected officials make decisions about which streets get paved, which sidewalks get repaired, and which schools close without regard to your opinions, if you don't vote. There is no hole deep enough for you to bury your head in to avoid politics completely. You can't run, and you can't hide — so you may as well participate.

Make a difference

If you do participate, you can make the system better. It may never be perfect, but improvement is possible. You have the power to make your elected officials respond to you. Your voice will be loud enough to be heard by everyone.

Voting is a valuable right that you, as an American, have. Many Americans take that right for granted . . . even the politicians. In the 1994 elections, a wave of voter reaction — a "throw 'em all out" after years of inaction and deadlock by Congress — shook up both major political parties, changed the dominant party in Congress, and made the politicians brutally aware of the issues about which voters had been concerned for years, and which the politicians had bypassed. That reaction reminded every politician not to take the voters for granted. The politicians heard the discontentment among voters, and they had to respond.

Become important

Voting is not required in the U. S., as it is in some other countries. The former Soviet Union used to brag about its 98 percent voter turnout on Election Day — but citizens faced stiff fines and punishment if they didn't exercise their right to vote for the candidate their government told them to vote for. But, in truth, there are so many compelling reasons to vote in our country, it's a wonder the voting turnout here doesn't come close to approaching that of the countries that demand it.

When you vote and participate, elected officials have to consider what you think. They may not always do what you want, but they have to listen to your opinions. When you vote, you become someone important.

Cynics are probably saying, "Yeah, but not as important as PACs and special interest groups with money." Keep in mind, though, that a district (be it a small town or the entire country) has only so many voters. Although money is in potentially limitless supply for a candidate (it can be raised from many sources), it's illegal to buy votes, and you can't give someone else your proxy to vote for you; so the number of votes cast in any election is finite. You and only you can cast your vote. Your vote has the same weight as the vote of every other citizen. Rich or poor, young or old, male or female, black or white, each vote is equally important.

Political power

Each American has the same number of votes. You may not have an equal share of the world's financial resources, but the secret ballot gives us all an equal amount of voting power. Each registered voter has one and only one vote to cast — regardless of what you hear to the contrary about certain big-city or downstate rural districts, where the concept of "vote early and vote often" is allegedly in force, or where that age-old question — "Is there voting after death?" — is supposedly answered in the affirmative.

The vote of a person who has contributed $1 million to a candidate counts for no more than the vote of the person who has given nothing to a campaign. After all, winning elections is all about getting a majority of the votes cast. Secret ballots like the one in the U.S., do not permit unequal weight to be attached to a certain person's vote. Votes are one-size-fits-all. Politicians need the votes of the "little people," and there are more "little people" than there are rich and powerful ones.

Since John F. Kennedy was elected, the percentage of eligible voters participating in presidential elections has declined in almost every election. That is true in local elections as well.

When we all vote, we are a powerful force that can move mountains, or at least politicians. When we don't, the small number of special interest voters have more clout because they are a bigger percentage of a smaller pie.

Figure 1 illustrates just how few people who are eligible to vote actually do. The outer circle represents the number of people in the U. S. who are eligible to vote. The next circle in the figure is the number of people who registered to vote in the 1992 elections. The next circle represents the number of people who actually voted in the 1992 presidential election. The number of people who actually voted is the 1992 voting population. The smallest circle is the group of people who voted in the primaries. Think how different things might be if everybody who could vote actually voted.


Figure 1: What would election outcomes be if every eligible citizen voted?
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