At campaign rallies and stump speeches, when allusions to political adversaries elicit boos from the audience, Barack Obama routinely turns to his classic response: “Don’t boo. Vote.” The line has assumed new meaning in the 2018 US midterm elections, when partisan animosity and political polarization are as severe as ever. Recent years have been characterized by bitter disputes largely along party lines, including Supreme Court confirmations, international trade agreements, and immigration policy. Such public, stinging controversies have energized Democrats and Republicans alike to take their grievances to the polling booths.
At Harvard, we can’t count on our fingers, in the weeks leading up to the election, the number of reminders we received from members of this community for American citizens to vote. The Harvard Business School Student Association, Harvard Housing’s Graduate Commons Program, and Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, along with several on-campus organizations, urged students from the US to make it out to the polls. In a note to students with the subject line “Democracy,” President Bacow expressed confidence that members of the Harvard community would “fulfill the first responsibility of citizenship in a democracy.”
According to a 2018 survey of US adults conducted by Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Americans believe voting in elections is very important to what it means to be a good citizen, placing participation in elections ahead of paying taxes or even following the law. However, cycle after cycle, fewer than half of Americans participate in non-presidential elections, and only a fraction of Americans cast ballots in their political parties’ primaries. Among 32 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations for which voter turnout data are readily available, the US places 26th; nearly four in ten Americans do not believe US democracy is working even somewhat well.
While the increased motivation to vote that we’ve seen in the most recent election is a welcome trend, it shouldn’t require overwhelming frustration and extraordinary division to persuade Harvard’s American students and fellow citizens to vote. It would be a tragedy if the current energy and enthusiasm for voting marks the end of a passing fad, and not the beginning of a sustained movement toward greater civic engagement.
Too much has been sacrificed to earn and protect the privilege to vote, and in every election, too much is at stake. We need to continue to ensure that our voices are heard, wherever we come from—as aspiring future leaders, the least we can do is to show up when it counts.