The Rights and Responsibilities of Voting

“…And your life doesn’t change by the man who’s elected.” This line from an Avett Brothers song released in 2009 called Head Full of Doubt hits me every time. Was there a time I unconsciously believed this? How many people around me still do? Collectively, our lives do change by the men and women who are elected, and it matters that we name this.

I have learned—through unlearning—to see White Supremacy as a strong demonic force that rules the borders I live within, invisible to a vast majority of white people—especially the spiritual ones. bell hooks said that “American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.” It is this negative socialization that tempts us to think that the people we elect will not affect our everyday lives. And we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the learning that teaches us so, and even the subtle ways, like song lyrics, that perpetuate this untruth.

The curious thing is that for those of us who have learned to live by the social ladders set out for us by patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, it is not much of a jump to believe that elections don’t mean much for passport-holding people who look like me with similar savings accounts and mortgages. Because when we, in our hyper-individualized society, unconsciously believe that the only thing that matters is climbing the ladders of wealth, professional prestige, and power, we can pretend that our individual choices do not have any effect on our fellow Americans. It is easier to pretend we aren’t connected. Because being connected means we share in the rights and responsibilities of humanity.

Rosemarie Freeney Harding “used to say that white people were her children, that all of us come from an original African mother and that if they sometimes act with violence and arrogance and immaturity, they need mothering so that they can learn to live in the world as family to the rest of us,” recalled her daughter Rachel in their book Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering. Maybe it sounds weird to you, but to me, voting is an exercise toward learning to live as family to each other. The act of voting is an act of hope that we can mother and be mothered by each other so that violence and arrogance and immaturity do not rule us. I know this sounds idealistic. But some idealism might do us some good. We need the arduous hope and idealism that pushes against our “imperialist, racist patriarchal society that supports and condones oppression” where, as bell hooks says, “It is not surprising that men and women [judge] their worth—their personal power—by their ability to oppress others.”

As people of faith, election time is accountability time. A time to reflect whether our political leaders are measuring human worth through oppression or through dignity. We get to actively consider if our leaders are leading our communities toward equity and justice, shalom and God’s kingdom. Those who have never had to fight for a right to vote may be the first to say that voting doesn’t matter, while also gaining the most from perpetuating this thought. Additionally, there are many ways in which equity needs to permeate the voting process itself, such as ranked-choice voting, legislating against gerrymandering and redistricting. A Guardian article in 2021 said that 62 percent of political office holders in the U.S. are white men even though white men only make up 30 percent of the nation’s population. The article quotes Reflective Democracy Campaign Director Brenda Choresi Carter: “I think if we saw these numbers in another country, we would say there is something very wrong with that political system. We would say, ‘how could that possibly be a democratic system with that kind of demographic mismatch?’” When the word democracy is defined by ideals of justice and fairness, this is a very important question to be asking ourselves regularly.

On August 31, Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native (Yup’ik) elected to Congress, defeated Republicans Sarah Palin, the former Alaskan governor and vice president nominee, and Nick Begich, who has several family member politicians. The three ran (among 45 others) in a special election to serve the remaining months of late Republican Don Young’s term, and will run again in November for the 2-year seat. Peltola, a former state legislature, is also the first winner of the state’s ranked-choice voting election.

Peltola said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that ranked-choice voting allowed for candidates to “stick to the issues and not get involved in partisan pettiness.” She also said that “Alaskan natives have been here for a very long time and we have not necessarily been reflected in the democratic process or among policy makers at the table,” and mentioned that Anchorage school district alone has over 90 languages spoken in homes.

Life does indeed change by the man [or woman] elected, because power always changes things. The onus is for those with the most privilege to recognize that even if one’s individual life doesn’t change a whole lot because of who is in power, many people’s lives do change—and it is all of our responsibility to work for collective flourishing where life becomes more just and more equitable not just for privileged individuals, but more importantly and especially for those typically not represented in the halls of power.

By Gena Rucco Thomas

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