Earlier this week, New York canceled its Democratic primary in an effort to keep people “safe,” in doing so they are failing to keep democracy safe.
At a time when our residents are sheltering in place, when our healthcare system is being pushed to its breaking point, when our economy is paused and small businesses are facing uncertain futures some people are asking is this really the time to hold an election. My answer is a responding yes.
My answer has its roots in the only election I ever worked in my home town. In the nearly 2 decades I’ve worked as campaign staffer, candidate and operative I have only ever worked one election where I grew up– that election was on September 11, 2001.
I officially was working for the New Hampshire Democratic Party but Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley had died and my hometown State Senator, Cheryl Jacques, was running for his seat. The Executive Director of the NHDP had worked in Massachusetts and when I asked to help out in my hometown he gladly made a few calls and got me on the campaign for the final weeks.
I was driving my car to my next assignment when the first plane hit, by the time I finished hanging door hangers in my assigned neighborhood the second plane had hit and I was headed back to headquarters. So many of the campaign staff and volunteers were from DC or had ties in New York that we were all stunned and shocked. We all waited – first we saw Boston essentially evacuated – all those voters who we had hoped to turn out at 6 pm were headed home, scared and stunned themselves. By early afternoon we knew that the election would continue and we had to figure out what that meant. We talked - less about strategy more about what we felt. And the consensus was clear – people needed to know that they could vote, people needed to know that their voices could be heard that day. We made signs on the floor of the headquarters. Not a single one had our candidate’s name on it. They said:
“Vote today for America” “Show them Democracy can’t be broken – Vote today.”
I went out and voted – no act has ever felt more important. I knew that who ever won this election would be voting on war, on homeland security measures and I wanted my voice heard and my vote counted.
Then we decided to call and canvass - I went out door to door. I can still remember the script to this day: “I’m sorry to bother you, I know that today has been stressful, but I wanted to let you know that today’s election is still going on.” If they let you continue and you felt comfortable “I am not asking you to vote for any candidate but to urge you to vote, to let your voice be heard. I am voting for Cheryl Jacques, but please go vote for whomever you think will defend our democracy best at this time.”
I got some push back – “how dare you come here.” I saw signs that said “John is safe,” those houses I skipped, unless they were already outside – at which I point I started with “I’m so glad your loved one is safe.”
But with each knock I grew more determined – it was clear that most of us beyond the sadness felt helpless and here was something we could do – something we needed to do. The attacks that day were designed to divide us, to strike at the root of democracy to shake our confidence in what made America strong – our independence. The best action we could take that day – to show them that democracy lives on, that we will come together at the polls despite our fear and our grief.
That strong sense of purpose was not diminished later that night when the returns came in and my candidate had lost. It is a responsibility that I have felt to my core ever since, it has influenced every aspect of my career and my service.
So today as I talk to people about why it matters if an election is held, even in a primary when there are few contested races – it’s because more important than the choice we make on the ballot is the choice we make when we take a ballot. When we take a ballot – at the polls or in our homes through vote by mail – we once again prove that the voice of the people can be heard. When we vote we are ensuring that our democracy can withstand physical attacks, wars, pandemics and whatever else is thrown at us.
More than anything a national emergency is the exact right time to hold an election. At every level of government, residents should have the opportunity to tell us if they like the way government is performing. A national emergency should be the moment that we as citizens rally to exercise the one right that allows us to check our leaders every year.
So, as we all stay in our homes, protecting ourselves and our neighbors from an invisible foe please fill out your vote by mail application, make a plan and ensure that despite whatever else we have lost when this is over, we haven’t let democracy die.