On November 4, 2013, I accidentally won an election.
This is one of my better cocktail party stories. Let me explain.
My friend Kayleigh went to the polls on Election Day. On a lark, she decided to write in my name for Inspector General of Elections, and to write herself in for Judge of Elections for our precinct. When she told me what she had done, I was a little concerned; I didn’t even know what the Inspector General of Elections did! I didn’t worry too much, though. It was just one vote, right? Surely one vote wouldn’t make a difference.
However, when I went to the polls later that afternoon, I noticed that no one was actually running for Inspector General of Elections. If no one wrote anyone else in, there was a good chance I could win.
And that’s exactly what happened.
With one vote apiece, Kayleigh and I won the election.
One Vote Matters
The first thing to do was to ascertain just what we were getting ourselves into. We discovered that the Inspector General and the Judge of Elections are poll worker positions. They are responsible for setting up the polls and ensuring that operations run smoothly on Election Day. In an attempt to convince me to accept the position, the previous Inspector told me, “This is a chance to do your civic duty, to serve your country and community. You’re saying yes to America! You’re saying yes to democracy!” With such a recommendation, I felt I couldn’t turn it down.
In a flurry of patriotism, Kayleigh and I accepted the positions.
Being the fans of whimsy as we are, we chose to celebrate our accidental triumph by throwing ourselves an Inaugural Ball. We invited our friends to come and celebrate the occasion. In formal gowns and tuxedos, we drank a toast to democracy. A friend had prepared remarks, including a reading of a Walt Whitman poem about the glory of elections, which proclaims “America’s choosing day” as the western world’s “powerfulest scene and show.” Then, with a John Phillips Sousa march playing in the background, we swore an oath to protect free, open, and efficient elections in our district.
At that moment, I was swept up in the romance of democracy… in the power of America’s choosing. I’ve now served half of my four-year term, and spending a few days a year running the polls has only strengthened my belief in the importance of civic participation.
The thing that surprised me the most while I’ve been working the polls is how few people show up to cast a ballot. It may surprise you to learn that the voter turnout rate in the United States is among the lowest in the developed world. While nearly all of our citizens have the right to vote, many do not exercise it.
I voted for the first time just four months after my 18th birthday, having been taught by a middle school civics teacher that voting is the duty of every citizen. Even so, I didn’t always vote in the midterm and primary elections. Once or twice, I just forgot. Other times, I told myself that I didn’t know enough about the candidates or the issues to make an informed decision. The truth is, I didn’t take it seriously enough to take the time to investigate the issues and form an opinion. Regardless, I didn’t think that my one vote would make much difference.
After serving as the Inspector General of Elections and witnessing how few of my neighbors vote, I’ve come to believe that voting is an incredibly important responsibility.
Voting is a way we can serve God and love our neighbor. As a Christian, I believe that God has entrusted this world to our care. The government has been tasked with ordering our common life, and we hold elections to determine how that work will be done. It is our responsibility, then, to engage with our government—to vote—in a way that brings honor to God and takes good care of the world.
As a citizen, my role in this system is to vote. I can’t abdicate my responsibility; some day I will be asked to give an account of how I stewarded my authority. Apathy and disengagement are not faithful choices.
When I vote, I choose not to act only in self-interest; my faith requires that I consider the well-being of others before my own. Even on issues that don’t directly affect me, I have a responsibility to do what is best for my community.
For example, even though I don’t have children, I should vote for what is best for the kids in my local school district. I want to elect school board leaders who will make wise choices and pay attention to the needs of the students and teachers. There is no immediate personal benefit to me; in fact, investing money in the schools will cost me something. Nonetheless, I choose to do it because it will help my city thrive. When I cast a ballot to support the school district in my local election, it is an act of love toward my neighbors.
The Temptation to Disengage
As we vote, we enact the words the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
The Jewish exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote were looking for permission to disengage from their community, to be wholly separate. They had been conquered and carried off to a foreign country, and they did not feel much good will toward their new city. I can imagine they felt hopeless and angry. The temptation to disengage from public life must have been strong.
That temptation remains strong today. In a 2012 USA Today poll, 59% of non-voters expressed frustration that “nothing ever gets done,” and 37% said politics doesn’t make much difference in their lives. Millions of Americans are frustrated with the tenor of the political conversation. This year, I’ve heard many people despair that they don’t like any of their choices, and that they’re considering sitting this election out. What difference will it make anyway? When no option looks appealing, what does one vote matter?
I am convinced that it matters a great deal.
American economic and foreign policies impact the lives of nearly every person on earth. Therefore, everyone has a vested interest in the results of our elections. However, only a small percentage of the world’s population can actually vote in those elections. There are seven billion people in the world. Of those, only 219 million are eligible to vote in American elections. Only 66% of eligible Americans are registered to vote, and even fewer of those voters actually cast a ballot.
In the 2012 presidential election, only 129 million people voted. That number is even lower for midterm elections: in 2014, only 36% of Americans voted, which is the lowest level of voter turnout in seven decades.
The decisions that shape the world are being made by the tiniest sliver of the global population. In such a system, one vote carries tremendous weight.
It is an incredible privilege to have a voice in shaping our political system, and this responsibility should not be taken lightly. I haven’t been invited to go to the White House to advise the president. But I have been given a say in the local and national issues that affect my community and the world, and that vote is mine to steward faithfully.
As followers of Jesus, we go to the polls as an act of obedience. We investigate the issues. We learn about the candidates. We pray. And then we go to the ballot box and exercise our right to vote as an act of love for God and neighbor.
In this particular election season, with so many reasons to shake our heads and disengage, it could be easy to think that your vote does not matter. But may I remind you, as the Inspector General of Elections for Ward 22, District 3 in the City of Pittsburgh: one vote does make a difference.
-Katherine Sikma lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She serves as a Campus Ministry Specialist at the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), in partnership with Christ Community Church of the South Hills. Her work is focused on whole-life discipleship and empowering young women, and she is currently pursuing a master's degree in leadership.