Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. –Rep. John Lewis
This quote, among many by Rep. John Lewis, will go down in history as a call to galvanize and inspire millions, not just in the United States, but around the world. For some, acting has been a way of life. It’s in the air they breathe and the culture they ingest. But for many, the idea of participating in democracy came about more recently. Perhaps after the 2016 election, or after children were thrown in cages, or following one more murder of a Black American by police. Whether it’s writing letters, marching, calling Members of Congress or organizing, people are moving off of the sidelines.
For decades I lived in Portland, Oregon where our elections have been entirely Vote by Mail since 2000. We don’t have the drama of long lines at the polls, or hanging chads. We can safely, leisurely, and quietly vote at home and only need to drop our ballots at a postal (with a stamp!) or ballot box. Needless to say, I thought that my ballot got magically counted and there was no need for volunteer help. Silly me. During the 2018 midterm election I answered a call for volunteers at our local elections office to be an elections observer.
It was fascinating to not only see the process but to learn that there is one and it’s sophisticated and thoughtful. From the bells ringing every time a truck full of ballots drove into the facility, to the tables in the basement where employees sorted through ballots, to the machines that ran them, there were people verifying that every processing step was protected.
My friend L also volunteered during the same shift and she was impressed that there were lots of checks and balances against mistakes and fraud. She noticed that each tiny, individual step in the process was done by a different group of people, and that no one could interfere or do anything nefarious. She felt like there was a lot of excitement and commitment from the workers. She also said that she was pleasantly surprised by the fact that both political parties had representatives there to observe. When she was in the room where they showed the questionable signatures under review, there were two Democrats and two Republicans.
I remember one of the volunteers telling me that he had worked as an elections observer for years, and this was the first time he had seen so many Democrats volunteering. Because Oregon and Portland vote so overwhelmingly blue, I guess it makes sense that there has been a sense of complacency amongst Democrats, but if the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s dangerous to take anything in politics for granted.
In the end, both L and I felt honored to be part of the process, and amazed that any interested citizen has the right to participate. L remembers thinking “everyone should do this at some point!” And I was left with the cheer running through my head, “this is what democracy looks like”.
The 2020 election is unlike any other. Thanks to Covid-19, many senior citizens who usually staff polling places will not want to be out in the public, and so there is a huge need for younger people to get involved. It’s easy to sign up to help, but pay attention, requirements will differ among the states. Most of the organizations we feature in the ACE the Election Checklist direct volunteers towards action and there are many that support one of our most cherished democratic right–to vote. You can be a Voting Squad Captain through When we all Vote, or fight voter suppression through Protect the Vote. You don’t have to be seasoned at volunteering and in fact, many younger people are getting involved. What Americans of all ages are discovering is that acting to build the “Beloved Community” has a surprisingly low bar, but reaps huge rewards.