I find it ironic that we bully, cajole and even invade other countries to promote democracy, yet almost half of those eligible in the U.S. don’t bother to participate in our own democracy.  We extol our democratic system and institutions to others, but them at home.

Last year I went with the Jimmy Carter Center to Southern Sudan as an international observer for the vote on Southern Sudan independence.  Southern Sudanese had every reason to distrust this vote.   All previous elections had been deemed frought with corruption and fraud.  And even if the vote itself was deemed ‘valid’ would it even matter?War with Northern Sudan had been waged for the past 50 or so years.  What were the chances a simple vote would accomplish what all those years of fighting had failed to do?

But Southern Sudanese voted.  They walked miles over dusty paths and roads to vote.  They came in trucks, motorbikes, overloaded cars and vans.    Women came with children in tow.   Young men came and proudly displayed their inked finger (a proof of having voted) as they left the polls.  Old men came in with tearful excitement that they were living to see the day.  In some areas, some feared retaliation from going to the polls.    In all areas, they had to trust the system would truly be ‘secret’.   But the Southern Sudanese took the leap of faithe and voted.  Almost 99% voted.

Did the Southern Sudanese vote make a difference?  It didn’t create a fully functional, economically stable country.  It didn’t preclude outbreaks of ethnic violence and inter-communal fighting.  It probably hasn’t signficantly raised the standard of living.  And there is still fighting on the border with Sudan.  But it made a difference.   For all it didn’t do, it laid the foundation of a new country.  It gave people a voice who had never believed they could have a voice.  And it offered hope and a vision of an alternative way of being governed.

I bring this up because I find that we Americans often see things as ‘success or failure’.  We are cynical about politics, politicians, government because they fail to be 100% what we expect them to be.  But if we don’t vote, then we can’t expect politicians to listen.   Polls are useful, but let’s face it, what we say to a pollster often depends on our mood or the most recent pundit statement on TV.  Voting hopefully requires actually committing to a particular policy course or political vision.  Voting is scarier.  It requires more information.  But it is the only way to actually affect government.  So, no matter who you want in government or what you want from government, go out there and vote.  It may not make the difference you hope for, but not voting is almost guaranteed to mean your voice won’t be heard.   And the Southern Sudanese will tell you, having no voice at all definitely sucks.