Editor’s note: Elizabeth is a poet, scholar, and president of the Alexander Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of the arts, culture, and humanities. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.
On Tuesday, November 8, we will go to the polls to vote in the midterm elections of our country. More than 235 million of us will be eligible to participate in this basic exercise in good American government, but data from past midterm elections suggests that only half of that number will be able to vote.
Concerns about election security, frustration over gerrymandering, and despair over federal and state sieges on voting rights have led many to question whether it’s worth voting at all. You may have already concluded for yourself that, given these challenges to American suffrage, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you vote or not.
The vote is bigger than any election: mid-term, presidential, municipal, state or otherwise. It’s an effort with more verbs, fewer nouns – more “I vote” and “we vote” than “my vote” or “your vote.” Voting requires collective exercise, election after election, year after year, to keep voting alive.
What we face in this midterm election and every election is not just whether our votes will affect our democracy. It is whether our votes will reveal our democracy.
When we step into the voting booth on November 8, we will do more than select a preferred candidate, proposal or ballot measure. What we will do is to carry out a management action related to the right to vote itself, sacred in its meaning.
We will hold that right, then, like a torch, to pass from one generation of Americans to another, and therefore to be able to exercise it for those of our current generation who cannot: for those who are incarcerated, for those who are not. citizens, too young, too sick.
The candidates and causes we support will not always prevail. But our wins and losses are separate from our work as pollsters. During Reconstruction in the American South, this distinction was well understood among enslaved and disenfranchised black voters before the Civil War. I reflect on this in my poem, “Vote of Families”:
“They had to answer to my people before
How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
How many jelly beans fill a jar?
Can you prove that your grandfather voted?
There was a time when black men could vote
and black women cannot, 1870, five years
free, and that vote belonged to the family.
Our families were separated and scattered,
stain, burn, lighten. We formed again.
The vote was not personal property.
The vote was not the only one.
There was no ‘mine’: the family vote.’
It was in my family that I first learned how to vote as a democracy. For years my parents and I voted at the same polling station in our neighborhood. No matter how early I got to vote, even though my father’s movement was a big challenge in his last years, I saw their signatures on the ballot box that always came before me.
This enduring commitment has been passed on to my children, who are now old enough to vote for themselves. They know the whole history of how they got that right. They too have learned the lessons of history.
My mother still has her grandfather’s voter registration card. At the turn of the 20th century, he owned a small haberdashery business in Selman, Alabama, where he was also registered to vote. As the Equal Justice Initiative’s meticulous records of lynchings across the South during those decades show, Selma was not a safe place for black men exercising their right to vote. In 1906, my maternal great-grandfather moved to Birmingham, then Washington. The voter registration card went with him.
Today, after January 6, 2021, when violent riots tried to forcefully stop the confirmation of the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, the “vote” is an urgent imperative that we must continue to answer at the ballot box. We vote, and we resist disenfranchisement. We vote, and we declare our responsibility, not only to vote today, but also to vote tomorrow.
In the years before the Civil War, on her 13 trips south to Maryland to guide enslaved family members and friends north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman often carried a flashlight to light the way forward. When he died in 1913, 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, his last words were reported to be: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Our votes are our lanterns. Burn them, treasure them, strengthen them. Lift them up, then move them forward. Let it be easy for the future Americans who will take it in turns, vote by vote.