By Chris Hedgpeth
There is a powerful line in Rush’s song “Free Will” that has always resonated with me: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” I had always interpreted these words in a philosophical/religious context that gave me a feeling of empowerment as an atheist. It wasn’t until recently that I considered the words of Neil Peart in a political context. Of the estimated 250 million eligible voters in the 2016 general election, less than 140 million actually showed up at the polls. That’s about 110 million people who could have voted but didn’t. Why? Could they not get a ride? Did they consider themselves apolitical? Did they not care? None of them had a legitimate excuse to abstain from voting, and neither do you.
Let’s first consider physical impediments to voting. You don’t have a ride, you can’t get the day off from work, you have classes all day, or maybe being in a crowd of people makes you uncomfortable. In any of these cases, you can easily obtain an absentee ballot in the mail by calling your local city hall or town office as early as three months and up to three business days before election day. You can also request an absentee ballot online through the state’s website. If you prefer to cast your ballot in person, free or discounted rides are available on election day through public transportation services and private companies like Lyft or Uber. You can also talk to your employer or teacher in advance and let them know you need time off to vote. All polling places in Maine are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). If you live on campus, you can vote at the Boys and Girls Club at 169 Broadway in South Portland or at the Brunswick Junior High School at 65 Columbia Avenue in Brunswick.
What if you’re just here for college and you normally live in a different state? You can either request an absentee ballot to vote in your home town, or you can claim residency here for the purpose of voter registration. What exactly is voter registration? Before you can vote, you have to register so that you’re on the electoral roll (the list of people eligible to vote in your district). If you’ve never registered, you’ll need a valid driver’s license, state ID or social security number, and you have to be at least 17 years old (though you need to be 18 by election day to actually vote). If you’re already registered elsewhere, there’s a space on the voter registration card to provide your old address so you can be removed from that municipality’s electoral roll prior to the election. While it is possible to register to vote on election day, I highly recommend doing it ahead of time in case there’s a problem.
Once you’ve registered to vote and you’re awaiting your absentee ballot or waiting for Nov. 6 to roll around, you should do some research into what exactly you’ll be voting on. Sample ballots can be found on your town’s website, or at your local town office. This is a similar copy of the ballot you’ll receive on election day (or in the mail). For a more informative resource on the candidates and issues at hand, I recommend politically-neutral sites like Ballotpedia. There you can find detailed information about each candidate and referendum issue, with external links to campaign websites and lots of statistics. Make yourself familiar with the issues and the candidates so you can make well-thought-out, informed decisions. Ignorance is not an excuse!
Voting typically involves filling in one circle next to a candidate of your choice, or one circle next to a “yes” or a “no,” but this year we’re trying something new in Maine. Ranked-choice (or instant runoff) voting is being implemented for certain seats. Because part of the state constitution implies the governor must be elected by a “plurality,” this system will not apply to the gubernatorial election. For the U.S. Senate and U.S. Representative elections, you will be given a choice to rank the candidates in an order of your choosing. You can vote for any number of candidates, and the highest-ranking candidate of your choice who does not get eliminated by being the least popular will count as your vote. For more information on ranked-choice voting, see the state’s website.
So far I’ve discussed the how of voting, but what about the why? Why should you care who wins an election? Why shouldn’t you just stay home on election day? While it may seem a passive action, abstaining from voting sends a message of complacency to the powers that be. Your apathy tells the leaders of our world to ignore your interests, and to work only for themselves. Your absence on the electoral roll is not a silence, but a resounding call to the political machine to trample your rights, and to do what it will with your future.
You have no excuses.