Vote checkmark

A few years ago, I was at a polling place in Indiana where a long line of people stood waiting to vote. A woman recognized me and called me over. “Why is it,” she asked, “that you politicians make it so hard and inconvenient to vote?”

I thought of this the other day when I read the news reports about presidents Trump and Putin meeting and jestingly accusing one another of election meddling. Leave aside the question of an American president joking about this. The sad truth is, Russian meddling isn’t our only election problem. We’ve got an archaic registration process, restrictive voting practices, and voting systems bedeviled by outdated technology. There are robust efforts afoot, by many people and groups, to suppress — not encourage — votes. And it’s common to find officials who are uninterested in promoting a fair and convenient vote, but instead are looking for ways to manipulate the system so that their preferences emerge from the voting.

So let’s remember: the ballot is the foundation of our democracy. It’s our best way to gauge the public’s will. If we fail to get the ballot box right, then our democracy fails.

Over time, I’ve come to look at a good election not so much in terms of who wins or loses, but in terms of the process, and whether it was fair and democratic. In a lot of ways, we’ll be strongest as a country not by means of a strong military or a strong economy, but when our battle cry is, “Let the people vote!”

We need a national aspiration that’s pursued at every level: to protect voting infrastructure, provide a paper trail for every vote, ensure adequate resources for the conduct of elections, and vow to ensure that state and local elections systems are run fairly, on behalf of everyone who’s entitled to vote. Our governments have to work constantly at what that woman in line wanted to see: making voting accessible and convenient.

Elections have consequences. The winners get political power that enables them to change the course of history. Our chief way to have a say in this is to vote in every election, every time, for every office. Let’s make sure we can, and that when we do, our vote matters.

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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