New Jersey and Virginia are holding state elections on 7 November. Some of my friends, family and colleagues tell me they don’t vote. They have lots of reasons. They say that their vote does not count. They say that the system is, at best, a poorly designed system and, at worst, completely corrupt system. They say that they do not follow politics. They say that they don’t have time. This got me to thinking about why I am so on the polar opposite end of those thoughts. I always vote. I began to wonder why that was the case. This essay is my attempt to work that out. What I discovered was that voting for me is about being a man and the example I set for my own children. It is about being an appreciative citizen and not taking for granted the privileges won by the spilt blood of our ancestors. It is about giving back to the community, in some small measure, in order to preserve these rights that men and women thought were so important in our country’s history that they were willing to lay down their lives for it. I vote because the idea of one person, one vote is perhaps the cornerstone to our participative democratic republic, a thing we can point to in our aspiration to the American Exceptionalism ideal, and I don’t want to take it for granted. I vote because of all of the contentious issues that lay before us as a nation, the act of voting is the one thing that we do together to address those issues. I vote because it took the country over 200 years to get the one-person-one-vote idea right through one awful war, five constitutional amendments, numerous national laws and continuous attacks to limit the franchise. I vote because the act is precious to me and I never want to lose the privilege.
I am not a political junky. I don't spend endless hours consuming the philosophical blather from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, John Oliver, Shawn Hannity or Rachel Maddow. I don't have a burning issue; at least not one that I am so passionate about that I accost little old ladies on the street that do not agree with me in an effort to bend them to my will. What I do have is a deep-seated appreciation that many people around the world do not benefit from the same privilege of participative government that I have simply because I happened to be born in this country.
Privilege and Participative
Those are two interesting words that describe the design of the U.S. Government system. And yet, I always run into friends, family, colleagues and strangers who don’t vote. They have lots of reasons. “My one vote does not count.” “The Electoral College is rigged.” “I don’t follow politics.” “I don’t like any of the candidates.” “I was too busy to register.” “I had to work that day.” I am always flabbergasted by that logic. For the Howard family, the idea of not voting is never on the table. We clear the day. We make it a Howard event. We don’t talk in terms of “if” we vote. We talk in terms of “when” we vote. And it got me thinking, why do we feel that way? Why does the act of “Not Voting” seem so wrong to us?
A few years ago, I took a taxi to the O’Hare Airport from my hotel in Chicago. I learned that my taxi driver, a delightful fellow by the name of Nicky, came from a small country on the east coast of Africa called Eritrea. When he was three years old back in 1993, his country declared independence from their current dictator. By the time he was eight, his family had moved to a refugee camp within the country because the succeeding dictator had dumped them into a war with the neighbors (Yemen and Ethiopia). The regime was so repressive that the lives of Nicky’s family were in danger. Nicky’s parents took the extraordinary step of shipping all three siblings, including Nicky, to America at the first opportunity. When Nicky told me that, I immediately thought about my own kids. How bad would it have to get in my country before I would decide to ship my kids to another country to preserve their safety and future? And how lucky am I that the chances of something like that ever happening in the USA are a million to one?
When I get in these moods, I often remind myself about America’s founding fathers.
You Have to Earn the American Exceptionalism Title
When these remarkable and flawed men signed the Declaration of Independence, they may as well have signed their own death warrants and they knew it. If the colonies had lost the war for independence against the British, the royal authorities would have executed them as traitors at the first opportunity.  When I think about this collective act of disobedience, this act of defiance in the face of especially low odds of winning the revolutionary war, I am humbled that these patriots were prepared to give their lives in support of a bigger idea; an idea that there could be a better way to govern. That is a high-bar-standard for American exceptionalism and it makes me consider if I have any beliefs within my own personal philosophy that are so strong that I would willingly give my life, and the fortunes of my family, to preserve them.
When you think about it, you realize that America does not ask much of its citizens for the privilege of living here. Citizens pay taxes and follow the law. That is about it. The country does not compel service, does not compel silence against its policies and does not compel participation in the system. It does not even compel a respect for the system that was so hard fought and won against incredible odds.
Because of that idea and admittedly other things, some American pundits think that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. Others think that it is arrogant to claim that title when it clearly lacks in several key metrics that might be used to choose the winner of such a competition. In my mind, both sides misunderstand the implication of the exceptionalism label. When you compare America to the rest of the world, the idea of best has no meaning. Who cares if you are number one or ten or 50? What can you do with that knowledge? What is important is that when you do the comparison, out of the 195  sovereign nations in the world, America has a good chance of being remarkable; of leading in a positive way; of acting as a force of good in the world; of setting an example of how things might be done. When opportunities arise to demonstrate that behavior and we intentionally decide to do something less than that, we do not live up to that potential. We do not live up to the American Exceptionalism ideal that the Founding Fathers gave us.
For me, the act of voting is one of those opportunities. That simple act of civic duty is a way for me to step up; to give a little something back to this country that has given me and my family so much. However-flawed the voting system is, voting is our modern-day demonstration and one-data-point proof to the world and ourselves that we are worthy of the exceptionalism title. It seems the least I can do. What concerns me is that our right to vote is not guaranteed. If we are not careful and diligent, we may lose that opportunity altogether.
Universal Suffrage – A Relatively New Idea and an Idea that We Must Protect
American Universal suffrage, the idea that every citizen gets an equal vote, has not been around that long. Even our well-respected Founding Fathers did not specify in the constitution that universal suffrage was even something they were worried about. From the very beginning, voters were citizens who owned land; a tradition that came over from the old country. This new red, white and blue government excluded Native Americans, Women, Blacks, the Poor and the Illiterate from the voting process. For some, this inconsistency rang falsely. Government leaders kept running into the paradox that if America is indeed a democratic republic, a government by the people, then the laws that govern that body should not exclude anybody from the process. But it was not until the mid-1960s, after five Constitutional Amendments, a Civil War and numerous federal Laws, that the Judicial Branch finally agreed that the constitution guarantees every person the right to vote. (See How the U.S got to Universal Suffrage below 
But for every step forward in achieving universal suffrage, the country seemed to take two steps back. Elected officials found ways to restrict voting rights from people they thought were unworthy even after passing constitutional amendments prohibiting that behavior. Read that last sentence again. Our elected officials, that same body that pushed for universal suffrage, fought against itself to limit the voting rights of certain citizens. Even after the Civil War when the government passed the 15th amendment in 1856 giving the right to vote to all male races including Blacks, southern state governments began passing local legislation that essentially made it so hard to vote in those states, that by 1900, the 15th amendment might as well have not been passed. 
But we kept chipping away at it and even though the judicial branch generally supports the universal suffrage idea today, the legislative branch still passes laws that try to limit the franchise. At the conclusion of each decade, the US government completes a constitutionally mandated census to ensure that the number of House of Representative seats reflects the population size within each state.  Within a tradition that has been going on since the beginning of the nation, the party in power takes the opportunity to redraw congressional district boundaries in a way that will best enable their party officials to get re-elected in the next election. This is called gerrymandering.  After the 2010 census and midterm elections, Republicans altered 210 congressional districts and Democrats altered 44 out of a total of 435 (58%).  For this 2016 presidential election, 14 states have passed restrictive voter ID Laws, inconvenient registration laws and early voting cutback laws. These restrictions tend to affect low income voters, people of color and very old people.  In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Texas law designed to fundamentally alter the one person, one vote idea. Texans wanted to change the country’s apportionment rules, the rules that determine the number of U.S. House of Representatives for each state, from total population to simply eligible voters.  The Supreme Court rejected the proposal out of hand but the legal action is indicative of our lawmaker’s continuous effort to reduce the franchise.
In October 2017, the Supreme Court began hearing a case brought against Wisconsin regarding the state’s extreme gerrymandering operations.  At issue is the fact that with automation, gerrymandering has become so efficient that even if you were able to vote, even if you were able to surpass all the hurdles that legislatures put before you to prevent you from going to the polls, the state voting districts are so precise that if your party is not in power, your vote essentially does not matter. You can vote all you want but you have no chance to change the status quo. I realize that if the Supreme Court does not shut down the Wisconsin gerrymandering scheme, it proves the point my relatives and friends have been telling me all these years; that the voting system is rigged. Why bother? But that is the point, isn’t it? The only way that these things get turned around is when citizens make enough noise in the political system that their associated politicians think they have to do something about it. That starts with voting.
The achievement of universal suffrage has been a long-fought battle over the course of the nation’s entire history. Even after the landmark Supreme Court decision in the 1960s, we cannot check this off our list and never think about it again. It is continually attacked by unscrupulous politicians to bend it to their advantage. Even though many Americans would accept that idea that every citizen deserves the right to vote, our elected officials tend to think they have the authority to shape the electorate to their advantage. That is why, when voting time comes around in my state, the idea that I would not cast a vote or exercise the privilege that was so hard-fought and won by our founding fathers (and mothers) does not occur to me.
The Joy of Community Citizenship
Obligations back to the country and threats to universal suffrage are serious issues. Before I turn the reader off completely for being such a downer, let me take it up a notch by describing one of my true pleasures in life. The physical act of voting, for me anyway, is inspiring. I usually go early, before work, so that I can ensure that the normal chaos of the day does not interfere with the voting process. Elections in Virginia, my home state, generally occur in the spring and the fall. The early mornings are usually cool but sunny. When I arrive at the polling station, other like-minded people are doing the same thing. There is a sense of community and purpose; never said out loud but inferred as you say good morning and make small talk with the volunteers and voters that are there with you. My favorite part is standing in line waiting for my turn in the voting booth. I get a big kick out of watching the volunteers, mostly retired old folks, who ensure that the mechanics of the voting process go smoothly. When I get to the desk where the volunteer finds my name on the voter list and checks it off, I can’t help but get a sense of belonging; an inclusiveness within a larger idea that is good and something to care about. And finally, after I make my selections, and turn to walk out of the building, a volunteer always shakes your hand, slaps a “I voted” sticker on your chest and says thanks for voting.
That is a good morning.
Voting for me is about being a man and the example I set for my own children. It is about being an appreciative citizen and not taking for granted the privileges won by the spilt blood of our ancestors. It is about giving back to the community, in some small measure, in order to preserve these rights that men and women thought were so important in our country’s history that they were willing to lay down their lives for it. I vote because the idea of one person, one vote is perhaps the cornerstone to our participative democratic republic, a thing we can point to in our aspiration to the American Exceptionalism ideal, and I don’t want to take it for granted. I vote because of all of the contentious issues that lay before us as a nation, voting is the one thing that we do together to address those issues. It took the country over 200 years to get it right through one awful war, five constitutional amendments, numerous national laws and continuous attacks to limit the franchise. I vote because the act is precious to me and I never want to lose the privilege. I vote because I refuse to abdicate my only direct way to influence the process.
On November 7 (Tuesday), two states are holding general elections: New Jersey and my home state of Virginia. New Jersey citizens are electing 80 delegates to the lower house of the New Jersey General Assembly, currently 52 (D) and 28 (R), 40 senators to the upper house, currently 24(D) and 16 (R), and their governor, currently Chris Christie (R).    Virginia citizens are electing 100 delegates to the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, currently 34 (D) and 66 (R), and their governor, currently Terry McAuliffe (D). 
I hope that you will join me.
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"The Voting Rights Act Is in Peril on Its Forty-Eighth Anniversary," by Ari Berman, 6 August 2013, The Nation, Last Visited 3 November 2013,
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How the U.S got to Universal Suffrage
5 Constitutional Amendments
A Civlil War
7 Federal Laws
And we are not done yet
A Civlil War
7 Federal Laws
And we are not done yet
1869: The states ratified the 15th Amendment granting males of all races, especially former slaves, the right to vote.
1869: The states ratified the 15th Amendment granting males of all races, especially former slaves, the right to vote.
1920: The states ratified the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote
1961: The states ratified the 23rd Amendment giving limited voting rights to the residents of Washington D.C.
1964: the states ratified the 24th Amendment banning poll taxes that hindered poor and minority citizens from voting
1971: The states ratified the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 (because Vietnam vets could fight in a war but could not vote).
1870: The Civil Rights Acts
Amended 1957, 1960, and 1964
Protections against discrimination in voting
1965: Voting Rights Act
Prohibits discriminating voting practices based on race, color, or membership in a language in a minority group.
1984: Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act
Requires polling places to be accessible to people with disabilities.
1986: Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA):
Allows members of the U.S. Armed Forces and overseas voters to both register to vote and vote by mail.
1993: National Voter Registration Act (NVRA):
Increases opportunities to register to vote and creates procedures for maintaining voter registration lists, making it easier for people to stay registered.
2002: Help America Vote Act (HAVA):
Authorizes federal funds for election administration and creates the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
2009: Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment (MOVE) Act:
Amends the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to improve access to voting by military and overseas voters.