Here in California, there’s only two more days to register to vote. And if you haven’t, I urge you to do so. Now, I have to say my circles of friends and acquaintances include few if any potential Romney voters. But they do include people who are so disaffected, or feel so frustrated, angry and disempowered by the political system, that even the sheer raw theater of it doesn’t move them to participate. And others who enjoy saying, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” which is funny but patently untrue in an election year when the far right is working so hard to discourage people from voting. If they’re going to such lengths to keep people from the polls, there must be something there that we want!
I’m thinking about an exchange I had with a young woman who was in our job training program last year. We’ll call her Shawna. I asked the group if they voted. Shawna said she registered when she turned eighteen, but they sent her the sample ballot, “and I couldn’t figure out all that bullshit. I threw it away.”
“But Shawna,” I said, “Did you know that all over the country, rich white guys are trying every trick in the book to keep young African-Americans like yourself from voting?”
“They don’t have to try,” she said, “cuz I ain’t gonna do it!”
Shawna grew up in public housing, on welfare. At eighteen, she’s already spent many months incarcerated in juvenile hall. Her boyfriend was murdered, another victim of gang violence. She’s bright, and likes to read, but her education did not prepare her well for either college or a job—and those months in juvie didn’t help.
I didn’t have much success in persuading Shawna that voting was relevant to her life. Our discussion took place long before this election, and the current crop of propositions wasn’t yet on the ballot. But were I able to talk with her today, here’s some ways that voting on the issues just here in California might make a difference to her life:
Prop 30 would raise money for better public schools.
Defeating Prop 32 would keep the Koch brothers and the corporate power-mongers from effectively excluding the unions and the candidates who back the interests of working people from political power.
Prop 34 would end the death penalty in California! Which inordinately affects people of color.
Prop 36 would reform our horrific ‘three strikes, you’re out’—another issue that is of deep concern to communities of color who are targeted for prison. Right now, a person who is charged with even a nonviolent offense or a petty crime can go to jail for life, with no judicial discretion. The reform would make it so that offenses need to be serious, violent ones. And dramatically reduce the chance that Shawna or her friends would spend a lifetime in prison for some stupid shit they do to be cool at nineteen!
Prop 37 would require labeling of genetically modified foods, giving us all an informed choice about what we eat, and ending the free ride Monsanto and the GMO-producing companies have gotten to inflict their unwanted, unsafe and damaging products on the unknowing public.
And that’s just the propositions! What about voting for President?
It’s true, neither Obama nor Romney espouse my personal ideals nor champion some of my most important issues. But there are many, many ways in which an Obama victory would make life better for Shawna, and for me.
Shawna doesn’t want to get pregnant, like so many of her girlfriends have done. Obama and the Democrats stand strong for women’s reproductive freedom, for making contraceptives available and part of insured health plans, and for protecting a woman’s right to choose. Romney et al have promised to make abortion illegal—some of them have stated in all circumstances, even rape (because they claim that a woman can’t get pregnant if the rape is ‘legitimate’) or when the woman’s life is in danger (they claim it’s never in danger from pregnancy!?!) The next president will likely appoint two supreme court justices, which will have a huge impact on protecting Roe vs. Wade and many other issues for decades to come.
Shawna is thinking of enlisting in the military. For her, that seems like the best option to some sort of future. While Obama is no pacifist, and continues to support a drone program I find immoral and unconscionable, he did get us out of Iraq. He is moving us out of Afghanistan, more slowly than I’d like, but at least he’s moving in the right direction. Romney, on the other hand, objects to any timetable to get out of Afghanistan, and is highly likely to let his warmongering advisers get us into a whole new war with Iran. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, is closest to my ideals but has no potential to actually win—and if by some miracle she did, she’d have no party backing in Congress, no experience and no clout.
In the Bayview, when there’s money for summer jobs and training, the murder rate goes down. When the money dries up, the murder rate climbs. Obama’s stimulus resulted in lots of jobs that summer for Shawna and her friends, and fewer deaths. Under Romney, the chances of any money for improving the lives of Shawna and her friends are as likely as my becoming a champion girl jockey and winning the Kentucky Derby. Under Obama—especially if we could get the obstructionist Republicans out of the way—we’d see more resources and more hope.
Then there’s health care. Under Romney, Shawna’s best hope of getting health insurance would be to go on welfare and qualify for Medicaid, or succumb to the forces driving young people from her ‘hood into prison. As for me, a self-employed writer closing in on the age where I could soon qualify for Medicare, health insurance remains my single largest expense, more than my house payments, more than food. And that’s after dropping down to a minimal policy. Obamacare is not the single payer system I’d prefer and which would make most moral and fiscal sense. But it’s hella better than what we’ve got now, especially for someone who is not part of some big corporation that helps pay for my insurance. And should Romney get in and turn Medicare into a private voucher system, it would have a devastating effect on my chances of avoiding a destitute old age!
Beyond Obama and Romney, think what a Republican victory would say about us, the people of the United States. If Romney wins, no matter by how small a margin or by how many dirty tricks and miscounted ballots, his folks will claim a mandate for the most extreme, right-wing policies. It would vindicate the right of the 1% to skim the cream and leave the dregs for the rest of us. The lies, the trickery, the influence of immense wealth, the voter-suppression tactics, the intimidation, the cheating and the overt and covert racism will all be rewarded.
And don’t try to tell me that under a Romney presidency, things will get so bad that people will finally rise up and make a revolution. I’ve been hearing that since Nixon ran against Humphrey in 1968, and you know what—it’s never happened, yet. Never even gotten close. Under a really bad, right-wing President things get worse, and people get more discouraged, more downtrodden, more hopeless and more apathetic. Organizing and motivating people to take action gets harder, not easier!
If Obama wins, it will show that the American people want something else—a place where the playing field is leveled, where everybody gets a fair chance. That doesn’t mean I’m under the illusion that Obama will give it to us. He’ll do what’s doable—and it will be up to us to make it not only doable but inescapable. Not in the voting booth, but in all the places where we organize and agitate and protest and build alternatives. That’s never easy—but under Obama the conditions for organizing will be far better than under Romney, if only because hope disappointed is more galvanizing than despair confirmed.
Elections are not the arena where I express my ideals–I do that in the garden, and in my writing, and in the streets. Elections are where I get pragmatic, because they do matter, and the differences between the candidates can mean life or death to folks like Shawna and to me.
So if you’re not voting out of principle, or you’re in a swing state refusing to vote for Obama because of his real failures to live up to the values he originally espoused, I’d ask you just to stop for a moment and think about Shawna. Think about me–and not just the impact on my mental health of having to watch that snide, lying, con artist for the next four years! Include in your ideals the real-life impact a Republican victory would have on a young black woman from the inner city, on an aging writer, on hundreds and thousands of other folks here and around the world for whom the nuances of difference might mean life or death.
Then vote your conscience. But for Goddess sake, get off your high horse and your butts and get out there and vote!
Here’s a couple of links to people who have said this all far more eloquently than I:
Daniel Ellsberg. “Defeat Romney, Without Illusions About Obama.”
Stephen Zunes. “My Support for Ralph Nader: Ten Years Later: Lessons Learned.”
Rebecca Solnit. “The Rain on Our Parade: A Letter to my Dismal Allies.”
KQED Guide to the California Propositions: