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Voting's Not Enough

Marking your ballot once or twice a year is great, but our communities need more out of you than that

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There's about six weeks left until this year's general election. It's time for me to fulfill my patriotic duty as a columnist by reminding you to fulfill yours by voting. You know why you should be voting — in fact, if you've even stuck with me through these first few sentences, you probably do vote (at least in general elections) and might even be a fellow voting evangelist.

If you do vote, that's great. If you get others to vote, even better. We have a real crisis in our nation where most people aren't voting — especially young people and minorities. It's led to leaders who are disconnected from a true majority of their constituents.

Voting is important, and I'm glad that we have a lot of people working to get more of us to the polls. (I'm also angry with the politicians who have tried to make it harder for us to vote.)

But what I've started to wonder is if we're actually hurting our cause by being so focused on voting to the exclusion of other civic actions. Voting is important, but it's not actually the most important action you, as an individual, can take in our democracy.

The reality is that most of the time when you cast your vote you don't actually change the outcome of an election. In fact, it's extraordinarily rare for an election to be decided by a single vote.

On the other hand, I've seen many times in my civic life where a single person taking a single action has made a difference in someone's life. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, your child's school, a homeless shelter or the local library matters.

I've seen a single member of the public showing up to a city council meeting and, by advocating with sincerity and passion, change the outcome of a vote. I've watched people shut down a homophobic or racist comment at a bar or restaurant — changing our culture is almost as important as changing our laws in the fight for equality.

These actions often take more time and personal investment than voting, but they also can leave us with even more passion to fight for a better world.

None of this is a good reason not to vote. Who we elect still matters tremendously — and the more of us who take part in it, the better it usually works. But perhaps we need to restart our conversation with our communities about participation in our democracy, and talk more about those things that require more from us than just marking boxes on a ballot.

Such a shift might even lead more people to vote. It's easy to imagine how engaging in concrete actions could lead to someone finding even deeper meaning in determining who should help lead us in solving the problems we face.

So please, do go out and vote on November 4 — but don't just be a voter on Election Day. Be a citizen all year round. ♦

— John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, is the Executive Director of Conservation Voters for Idaho. He has been active in protecting Idaho's environment, expanding LGBT rights and the Idaho Republican Party.