The first time I voted was the last time my father voted. I remember helping him into the car. Though he was a relatively young man, cancer had wracked his body and he was weak. I was younger still, having withdrawn from the fall semester at school to return home and help my mother care for him. It’s a strange thing when someone you love is dying. We found that time slowed, pulled our gaze backward, held us in a season when the leaves brightened and began to fall. Yet the first Tuesday in November was different.
On that morning, my father rose, carefully bathed, and dressed. He had voted all his life and smiled at the thought of casting one last ballot. I drove him to the polls where people in line were kind enough to let us to the front. My father steadied himself against my shoulder as we walked toward the booth. Then he disappeared behind the curtain and cast a vote for a future he would never see. He died less than three weeks later.
So you’ll forgive me if you see me at the polls wiping the tears away. But I’m not crying only for my father, I’m crying for something greater. When we step into the booth or stand before the touch screen on Election Day, we are voting for the future. For a moment, we are alone. There is no partisan clamoring. There are no flyers or attack ads. There are no candidates trying to shake our hands. There is only quiet, and the choice before us about what kind of future we envision for ourselves and our neighbors.
Framing this election in terms of the future may be helpful during these especially polarizing times; it’s a way of voting for something rather than against something, which is what we’re encouraged to do by all the negative ads. Yet when we consider the future, I hope we’ll do so as my father did, by considering not only our individual futures, but the future of every other sister and brother and the future of the country we share. My father didn’t really have a future, and he knew it. Yet he did not see that as a reason to stay home. Instead, he did what he had always done and cast a vote with the whole community in mind. I remember the bright look on his face when he stepped out of the booth. He had voted, in particular, for politicians supporting expanded access to health care for all, and he felt good about that.
The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that we must “realize in thought and act that democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes.” Among those attitudes, I think, is a certain hope in an expansive idea of the future. This hope is not naïve optimism, but a more steadfast commitment. We work for a future we believe is possible if enough of us work together to achieve it. We work for a future where more of us are included and every sister and brother has what they need. We work for a future that stretches far beyond us, to include the generations of people that will follow and the health of the earth, our common home. And the work matters enough to climb out of our deathbeds, steady ourselves against a caregiver, and cast one last ballot for a future that matters, whether we’ll see it or not. As Dewey said, these commitments constitute a way of life.
If only it were so with us. Yet in 2016, the U.S. Elections Project estimated that nearly 43 percent of eligible voters stayed home. That’s approximately 100 million people, more than the number that voted for Trump, Clinton, or a third-party candidate combined. This is important to remember as we move toward another Election Day. None of us has a clear idea what the country wants because the country as a whole hasn’t chosen to make its voice heard. Yet if we did show up at the polls, all of us with the future in mind, then the future itself would take a radically different shape. I’m willing to guess it would be a lot better.
The good news is, you don’t have to be dying like my father for your vote to count; they all count the same. All you have to be is registered. In his spirit, I urge you to visit www.scvotes.org to do just that. The deadline has been extended to October 17th.
Jeremy Rutledge is Circular Church’s senior minister and the co-president of Charleston Area Justice Ministry.