The first time I voted, I was excited to get into that booth! I had ready my picks for President and Congress, but as I read down the ballot, I realized that I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. Who were all these people running for state and county offices? What did I know about them beside their party affiliation?

Election Ballot Covers Many Races.

I had made the mistake many first-time voters make. I somehow thought an election was all about the President, and maybe Congress. But every other November, we choose an array of elected representatives for state and local government. These are important decisions, for state and local governments set policies that affect us every single day—policies regarding everything from the streets we drive on to the kind of education we get.

The second time I voted, I was a little wiser. Attending college in a town where I had not grown up, I was unfamiliar with the local issues and candidates. So I asked a trusted professor for background information and his opinions on the candidates. I was much more prepared the second time I entered the voting booth.

Americans Do More ‘Electing’ Than Others.

We do ask a great deal of voters in the United States. Sometimes it seems that we vote on everything—judges, sheriffs, city treasurers, county surveyors, county coroners, dogcatchers! Well, usually not the last one. Our American Government textbook puts it this way: “No country can approach the U.S. in the frequency and variety of elections, and thus in the amount of electoral participation to which its citizens have a right …. The average American is entitled to do far more electing—probably by a factor of three or four—than the citizens of any other democracy.”

Voting is a Big Responsibility.

In a way, this is exciting! We give citizens a great deal of responsibility, and we trust them to make good decisions. The downside is that we don’t always do our homework, and sometimes we don’t exactly make it to the polls. In fact, the U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any long-standing democracy. In 2008 we hit a voter turnout of 62 percent, the highest turnout in four decades. But we still get smoked by Europe, where countries like Germany, Sweden, and Belgium regularly top out at more than 80 percent.

There are many reasons why Americans don’t make it to the polls. Maybe we should make Election Day a holiday, or vote on the weekend. Maybe we should rethink voter registration. Maybe we could do a better job in civic education, helping our citizens to understand better how our democracy works and how we can participate effectively in our own governance.

One Vote Does Matter.

Some people will argue that one vote just doesn’t matter. But I’m not convinced by that argument. We have seen many recent elections that have been extremely close. The presidential election of 2000 came down to a few hundred votes in Florida. We had an election in Fort Collins not too long ago that was decided by 9 votes. Nine votes!

Democracy really works only if people participate. If we choose to sit out, then others take our power and decide our fate. It may be a bit of work to vote—to figure out who all those people on the ballot are—but it is the price we pay for having a government that responds to our needs and interests.

Do Your Homework.

So, look up those state and local candidates! Newspapers have written about them, and candidates all have websites. Some may even come knocking on your door. The street they pave or the school they save might be your own.

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