The 2022 fall election season is rapidly approaching and your social media accounts, news feeds, and mailboxes have likely been flooded with reminders to vote. And for good reason. There’s a lot at stake this year, as 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats are on the ballot — and most states are also holding elections for critical state and local positions.
However, the current political landscape has understandably left some individuals, especially young people and people of color, feeling exhausted, disenchanted, and frustrated. And recent research reveals that many people increasingly feel like there is not much voting can do to change government. But, in spite of this frustration — or perhaps even because of it — there are actually many reasons why it’s critical that you vote in every election, every year.
When you vote, you’re not just electing government officials. You and fellow voters are expressing your needs, preferences, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction as an electorate. Voting is the primary language of a democracy. It’s one of the main tools people have to communicate how they wish to be governed. Who voters decide to put in office reflects the issues they care about, their commitment to developing solutions for pressing societal problems, and how they would like their tax dollars spent.
American democracy is built upon the philosophy of the social contract. Essentially, this means that individuals agree to follow the rules and laws that govern society in exchange for the protection of their rights. Though, it’s important to note that while the social contract is the foundation American governance rests upon, it’s not a contract that every American has had equal opportunity from which to benefit. The level of protection offered has always depended on your race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender expression, religion, and sexual orientation.
It is an unjust truth of American democracy that the social contract does not equally protect everyone. But, through voting, people can make their collective voice strong enough to force democracy to listen.
April Albright, the Legal Director of Black Voters Matter Fund, echoes this sentiment in an interview with LDF. “Voting is supposed to help change your life. It was never meant as just a ritual that we can go and do with no expectation of an outcome,” she explains. “Democracy is something that is perfected in time, and it changes with engagement.”
In fact, time and again, historically marginalized communities have come together to change the course of democracy, including in very recent history. Black voters in Georgia elected the first-ever Jewish and Black senators to serve the state in 2021, and, in 2018, a record-setting number of women were elected to office throughout the United States. 2020 saw the highest turnout of voters of color in American history and Gen-Z, voters ages 18-24, had a lot to do with this. While older voters still turned out in the largest numbers, Gen-Z voters had the greatest turnout increase since 2016, demonstrating their potential to create massive change.
Celina Stewart, the Senior Director of Advocacy and Litigation at the League of Women Voters, tells LDF that turning out despite frustrations with the political landscape is critical because “historically, turnout during times like this has been the most influential toward change.”
Stewart adds that those seeking to suppress access to the ballot box are also counting on Black and Brown voters sitting out on the election.
“And when we sit it out, it makes it that much harder to achieve a democracy we are all part of. As one of the strongest and growing voting blocs, we must remember that our vote is more than an individualist pursuit,” she emphasizes. “[It’s] a community mandate to strengthen the political climate to be more reflective of the issues that matter most to unrepresented communities and a mechanism for centering our voices in the electoral process.”
It’s estimated that over 30% of voters don’t complete their entire ballot, but there are so many opportunities for individuals to substantially change their everyday lives at the bottom of their ballots. Races for local roles like city council members, county commissioners, sheriffs, and school board members are found toward the end of the ballot — though their location certainly isn’t a reflection of their importance. For example, how police engage with a community, whether public transportation is affordable, and the accessibility of clean, affordable water are just a few critical issues shaped by down-ballot races.
Moreover, a variety of issues, called ballot measures, are also located down-ballot. Ballot measures include items like proposed amendments to state constitutions, repeals to existing state laws, or proposals for new state laws. And recent votes on ballot measures demonstrate their profound impact. In August 2022, Kansas voters protected access to abortion in the state through a ballot measure. And, in 2018, Floridians voted to restore voting rights to people who were formerly incarcerated.
Forthcoming ballot measure decisions could be just as influential. 137 statewide ballot measures will appear on ballots in 37 states in the upcoming election. Five states will have voters decide if slavery should be removed from their state’s constitution. Voters in Maryland and South Dakota will determine if recreational use of cannabis should be legalized. And Colorado voters will have a chance to vote on whether to provide free meals to all public school students. This is just a small snapshot of the many critical ballot measures that voters will consider this fall.
Though ballots can be long and confusing, there are helpful online tools to support voters in navigating them. LDF, among many other organizations, offers several resources to consult if you want more information on local elected officials or on how to research issues that may appear on your ballot.
Presidential elections typically garner the highest turnout from voters and attention from media, which can lead to the false perception that electoral issues are only relevant on a four-year cycle. But elections happen every single year, and their results have enduring effects that can last for years or even lifetimes.
The redistricting cycle, which produces new legislative maps every 10 years following the decennial census, serves as one example. A majority of states have already enacted their new maps after the 2020 census, but several maps have been challenged in court because they were drawn in a way that denies communities of color the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. These maps were voted on by elected state legislators. And, when they’re challenged, judges, who are sometimes elected, frequently decide if they should be implemented or redrawn. Notably, judges in some states serve lifetime appointments to the bench. That means a judge you elect in 2022 can potentially decide how political power is allocated in your state in 2031 — during the next redistricting cycle.
Moreover, voting on a down-ballot measure in one election, or even voting for a legislator in state and federal elections, can have a long-term impact on your and others’ lives in many other ways. Down-ballot measures can expand rights and economic opportunity, like when Arizona voted to increase the state’s minimum wage or when Maryland voted to amend the state’s constitution to allow same-day voter registration, among other examples. And even electing legislators who serve limited terms can bring substantial changes to your everyday life through the policies they enact at the local, state, and federal levels, which can have both instant and enduring consequences.
Ashley Shelton, President of Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a Louisiana-based civic engagement organization, has witnessed this lasting impact firsthand. “In Louisiana, we have expanded voting rights the last two years, supported our partner, VOTE [a grassroots organization that works to end the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons] in winning sweeping criminal justice reform, and we are about to realize a second majority-minority congressional House seat,” she says to LDF. “These wins would not be possible without the countless voices of impacted people that have stood, fought, and demanded change … that is power, and we must keep [exercising] it.”
Frustration in a moment of deep uncertainty and complexity is completely understandable. But exercising your right to vote, even in times of disillusionment, is still one of the best ways to communicate a hunger for change. Voters have the power to shape democracy — but first they must cast their ballots.
Our state, municipal, and county-level elected officials have a big impact on our communities, and there are thousands of elections coming up this year. Learn about major positions in state and local government on the ballot.
Information about local elections and candidates can be hard to find. Our research guide helps you find the information you need to be prepared to vote.