President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.” What is an American’s greatest right? Some may claim freedom of speech, others, the right to a speedy and fair trial, but the Founders made it clear what right they valued most. The Declaration of Independence states that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and one of the rallying cries for the Revolutionary War was “No Taxation without representation.” The Founders viewed the right to vote as the most critical aspect of a republic.
However, according to the United States Election Project, only 60 percent of Americans vote during presidential election years and even fewer in midterms. College students voted even less, with under 50 percent of students voting in the 2016 election, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Learning. But why is voting so important? Does it even matter? Voting is not only a right, but it is also a duty, and contrary to public opinion, every vote does matter.
One example of this fact comes from the U.S. House of Representatives race in Buffalo in 1910, where one vote decided the outcome of the election. If two of Charles B. Smith’s supporters had stayed home, he would have lost the election.
A second, and significantly more important example, comes from the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Three years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War, the Radical Reconstructionist had gained control of Congress and wanted to bring “justice” to the South. The only thing standing in their way was Andrew Johnson, the president at the time. Johnson had been a fierce critic and opponent of the Reconstructionist policies and wanted to remove Edwin M. Stanton, the current Secretary of War and a member for the Reconstructionists, from office.
Anticipating this, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Bill which prevented the president from removing certain cabinet members from office without the Senate's approval. Johnson fired Stanton anyways, and soon after, the House impeached Johnson, sending the president’s removal trial to the Senate. When it came time to vote on removal, the Senate missed the two-thirds requirement by one vote. Had the Republicans been successful and appointed a president who agreed with them, the South would have been set back decades, if not centuries. Though one-vote decisions like these are rare, votes often come down to thousands if not hundreds of votes. Look no farther than the 2016 presidential elections.
Voting seems so normal in our society that we don’t even take the time to realize how special it is. Before America, voting was rare, if not impossible, especially for women and minority groups. Our ability to vote freely today is something our ancestors thought they would never see, and were willing to die for. If they could see our ambivalence towards voting today, it would make them turn over in their graves. We need to remember voting for what it is, an act that over 25,000 men died for and many continue to serve to protect.
When the founders created our country, they assigned only one job to the people: to protect liberty. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Our greatest form of influence is through our vote, as John Jay eloquently puts it, “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” If we choose to ignore this responsibility, the outcome is clear. And as Roosevelt said, “if we don’t exercise our freedom, we’ll lose it.”