The first year that I was legally old enough to vote was 2000, the infamous first election of George W. Bush. At the very adult age of 18, I registered as an 'independent', decided that I didn't like any of my options, and with my self-righteousness in hand, I declined to show up at the polls that day.
I woke up the next day with a new president in control of my healthcare options, my country's foreign policy, and a million other things that would be done in my name over the next eight years under President Bush.
Over the next four years, September 11th happened, war in Afghanistan, and an eight-year decline towards one of our most significant economic recessions. In those moments, I felt anything but self-righteous. I felt ashamed and like I was in need of a serious education.
Four years later, I had a better understanding of how politics worked. Our options in leaders are not typically the most scrupulous people on the planet and there is a lot more at play than actual voting. No one is going to call you and ask you why you didn't vote, and the system won't change until we change it ourselves.
If anything, the conservative right prefers our silence and, in fact, my 'I'm not voting!' rebellion was all a part of the plan. Keep them home, they thought, distract them with other stuff, give them the Kardashian's and Angelina and Brad, don't let them figure out that these choices being made by a relatively small part of the population would later affect our bodies, our rights, our children and our global community.
On the eve of Bush's re-election, I voted for John Kerry while wishing that Dennis Kucinich had been a more viable option. I stayed up until 4 in the morning watching the election results and then went to bed with a sinking feeling. My one vote and my fingers crossed hadn't been enough. Another four years passed which found me living in Central America where seven-year- olds would stop me on the street only to school me in U.S. politics and ask me who I voted for and why. I realized then that these kids in every country in Central America knew more about US politics than many of my friends because it affected them in more tangible ways than we could ever imagine. I also realized that something had to change.
Just like that, Obama arrived, with his message of hope and his promises. After 8 years of a downward economic spiral, democrats and liberals, independents and moderate republicans bound together and voted him into office. I expected to wake up the next morning in a Disney movie with bluebirds singing while they helped me get dressed. While Obama did a lot for the US economy, he wasn't initially the brave leader I had voted for and I was disappointed. He deported more undocumented people than any other President. He wasted my money on building a fence on our Southern border to the tune of 1 million dollars a mile while kids in my community were hungry and didn't have a fair chance at a good education. Still, I voted for him in the next election because he was my best option, the lesser of two evils. This was when I realized how politics work: we make change in small, incremental steps. (To be fair, Obama has been MY president in the last year and has become the person I did vote for on the those two election days).
I still want to wake up to a new world in November of 2016 where women have the rights to their own bodies, where we care about the child refugees on our southern border and show this care and compassion in our immigration reform policies. I would love for Bernie to be elected and for him to wave some magic wand that makes all of the horrible things we've done in the name of freedom just go away. But that's not how it works. If we want things to change, we have to work together, we have to educate our communities, and we have to elect leaders that let politics come second to ethics and morality. Before any of that, we have to vote.
So this is my message to those of you who don't vote, or who only vote in presidential elections. Not voting isn't a rebellion, it is surrender. We have to play the game and if you don't show up at all, we'll never win. Those of us on your team, those of us who want this world to be filled with more love than hate, more compassion than intolerance, are disappointed. Because you're losing the game and you're waving a white flag for us and we're still fighting.
If we hope to change anything in 2016, we have to show up and work as a team and that has to start right now. One person can change the world. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela. Look at Paul Farmer! We can't underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to make sustainable change. Act from your ideals, always, but on that first Tuesday in November, commit to the team, commit to small change, commit to hope and remember the rules of our current political system; your vote is your voice.