Get Out the Vote

I’m pretty cynical about voting in general and about voting in Texas in particular.†The statement comes from a Texas activist who recently returned from protesting the Republican National Convention in New York City. It sums up a view prevalent among young progressive activists and partly embodied by a campaign called “Don’t Just Vote (Because our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes),†which labels voting a “red-herring†and calls for direct action.

“To sidestep the entire issue of voting, and instead focus all attention on the alternative ways to apply power, might save everyone a lot of wasted energy, and unlock the vast potential dormant in our communities, our relationships, ourselves,†the campaign’s website says.

In a presidential election that could be as close as the one in 2000, a Republican strategist couldn’t have crafted a better message to dampen the turnout of the GOP’s opponents. Ultimately, victory in 2004 will be determined by who gets their side to the polls.

Talking to Texas Republican delegates in New York, Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd urged delegates to take 10 people to the polls and talk with their neighbors about the importance of voting for the president. Speakers repeatedly told delegates that they were frontline soldiers in a war for the soul of America, this is the most important election in their lifetime, and that all their efforts should be focused on November. The delegates know first hand what happens when they organize and vote in blocs. A relatively small band of social conservatives managed to do just that, and over a period of years, took over their local party, and then the state of Texas.

Unfortunately, a number of trends have combined to make voting unattractive to many young progressives. Serious questions about the validity of electronic paperless voting machines have raised concerns about the credibility of the voting process. The civil rights struggle to win the right to vote has receded from memory and with it the injustices of the completely disenfranchised. On the local level, redistricting has rendered many races uncompetitive and voting a waste of time. And the Democratic Party establishment all too often has opted for Republican-lite, fueling the impression that voting offers only a choice between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

“I understand the mentality,†says Ana Yanez-Correa, Texas LULAC executive director. “The voting system has disempowered communities of color because of broken promises.â€

When LULAC works with communities it explains its program of civic participation as a series of steps. The first is to register; second is to vote; and third is to hold elected officials accountable. That way, people don’t have unreasonable expectations or think that just voting is enough.

“The least you can do is vote,†explains Yanez-Correa.

There is a real difference between the candidates in this election, particularly on domestic issues such as civil rights, social welfare, and the environment. Voters are faced with a meaningful choice that will change the course of the nation and the world. Granted, marching in the street and lampooning real corporate villains to bring attention to the Bush administration’s malfeasance is much easier than finding 10 undecided or apathetic voters, educating them, and convincing them to go to the polls.

But now, more than ever, progressives need to respond to the radical right’s assault on America by getting out the vote. On November 2, taking like-minded friends and family to the voting booth is the quickest road to meaningful social change. —JB

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Published at 12:00 am CST