Change depends on exercising our right to vote

By Stacey Newman

Many of us are talking about justice. How do we better our community? How do we ensure justice becomes a reality, not only a slogan in a march?

Many of our current systems are instituted through local and state policies, which have been enacted by elected officials. We know that elected officials are put into office by voters, those citizens who are eligible to vote and show up on election day. It’s like the “Give a Mouse a Cookie” children’s book, or the popular “Get Rid of Cable” commercials. Actions beget other actions.

So how are those voters doing, particularly in St. Louis County, the largest county in the state? Let’s look at a few statistics from the Secretary of State’s office and the St. Louis County Board of Elections. Of the county’s 1,001,444 total citizens, 66.8 percent are registered to vote. Only 44.4 percent of those registered voters actually voted in the November general election, the ballot for which included four Missouri constitutional amendments. That means only 29.7 percent of all St. Louis County citizens utilized their power to decide who was elected to the Legislature, where the majority of our policies are set into law.

So who is responsible for our state of affairs? We all are. 

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Many people say, “I don’t have time” or “I don’t understand what’s on my ballot.” The common argument we hear is “my vote won’t matter.” Yet there are several in the Legislature, myself included, who won their races by exactly one vote. 

The situation gets worse. Only 29 percent of registered St. Louis County voters came out in August when we had five amendments to the state constitution to consider, including one to alter the previous “right to bear arms.” Only 192,501 voters cast their ballots and made decisions, which more than 1 million residents in the county must now live with. 

Voter apathy continues on the local level. Look at the 12- to 15-percent voter turnout during elections in April 2013 and 2014, when municipalities elected mayors, aldermen and school board. Many don’t pay attention to their local elected officials until an issue hits the fan. For example, it’s easy to complain that the current Ferguson mayor doesn’t reflect the diversity of his community. Yet no other candidate even bothered to run. So who is at fault? 

Voting records are public information. We know who votes and who doesn’t. I can walk into any grocery store in St. Louis and know that the majority there have not bothered to vote. Most people have no idea who represents them in their city hall or even the state Legislature. As much as I try to communicate with those in my district, many continue to believe that I am a congresswoman and work in Washington. 

Who is accountable? All of us. 

How can we expect policies that will address inequalities and injustices? Current policies will remain until we elect officials who care about those same ideals. The same old policies and systems are a certainty until each one of us places a higher priority on voting.

Registering new voters is an easy first step. But the challenge is ensuring that those new voters, those who vote occasionally and those who only vote for president every four years, actually show up – every single election. We can not afford to accept voter apathy as the norm. 

Do we adopt mandatory voting, even at the state level, like 22 other countries? I don’t see this as a viable option when the leadership in the Legislature continues to advocate for voter suppression instead.

The next election is not until April, so we must live with who is now in office. Yet in a few months, many city council and school board positions in municipalities will be on the ballot. Now is the time to pay attention to those races and not wait until someone is elected without opposition. Now is the time to consider running for office yourself or backing a good candidate. Now is the time to organize a campaign, knock on doors and not wait for someone else to do it.

Just like the mouse or the cable guy. Policy change will only come when we first do our part.

Marching is good. Voting is better. Remember that famous Harry S Truman line: “The buck stops here.” 

Responsibility for justice must start and stop with us. Utilizing our voices through the power of our vote is the key to justice. 

Stacey Newman, a Democrat, represents Missouri’s 87th District.