I am a French historian at Emory. You might expect me to describe the horrors of the past days, or the realization that events in Paris are linked to Beirut, Baghdad, Bamako and — as the moving campus candlelight vigil expressed it — to the violence of the world. Instead, my response to the events is: Vote. If you are lucky enough to be a citizen of a country that has elections, and even better, where elections make a difference: Vote!
Each day the world appears more challenging. As students take notes in classes and juggle part time jobs, lawmakers at every level are deciding how to deal with conflicts that jump across continents and oceans. Whether or not you get to the voting booth, they will speak in your name. A staggering run of problems lies before voters here in Atlanta and around the world. Terrorists and refugees are today’s headlines. They join climate change, human rights, cyber security, Supreme Court appointments, military alliances, trade agreements and the criminal justice system, to name just a few of the issues that flash onto our social media pages. They deserve more than outrage and memes, however. They deserve more than our thoughtful consideration and reasoned arguments. They deserve the power of our votes.
It matters who ends up in leadership, from county commissioners, to mayors, governors, legislators, presidents, court justices and prime ministers. Just this week, many governors, including Georgia’s Nathan Deal, spoke against the arrival of Syrian refugees. In response, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that Atlanta would remain a “welcoming city.” The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to limit refugees, while a candidate for the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed confining more than 11,000 individuals, many French citizens, to house arrest with electric leg bands.
But it will be election results that determine who decides which problems to address and how. A vote cast for the mayor in Atlanta, Decatur or Paris has the capacity to transform — indeed, even save — a life on the other side of the globe. That statement applies not only to the refugee crisis, but to a whole array of complex issues, many of which have no good answers. Debates will roil legislative chambers, newspaper pages and political campaigns. But it is exactly such policies — those that offer only marginally better solutions — that demand the greatest wisdom, knowledge and imagination. I do not presume to tell you what to think or how to vote; far from it, I do argue, however, that a vote here, or wherever your hometown is, can change a life half a world away, today or a decade from now.
There is modest good news regarding the youth vote. In the 1990s, only about 40 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 25 participated; now the figures are closer to 50 percent. That means, however, that roughly 50 percent are sitting out elections. I understand reasons not to vote. The speed of the semester makes it hard to register, request absentee ballots or get to the polls. Many U.S. states have thrown up new obstacles by requiring extra documents and closing registration offices — and some of those policies target younger and minority voters. Moreover, candidates and platforms can be uninspiring. The wooden imagery, platitudes and personal attacks in our political discourse are depressing. Worse, big money exerts pressure on the process and those elected that one rightly questions with regards to the value of the ballot. Why vote if corporations and lobbies have a stranglehold on the entire political system? Yet, if voters abandon elections, they are only ceding more power to those entities.
If national politics seem too dismal, look locally. Even if you never leave campus, what happens in Decatur and Atlanta affects you. Job applicants will weigh every offer that an Emory College Dean or a Clinic supervisor makes. Even in a tight market, Emory’s ability to attract the best professors, administrators and staff depends on a host of local issues.
“How good are the schools?” job candidates ask. “Does MARTA reach Emory? Will I find welcoming neighbors? Fair policing? Bike paths and parks? Affordable housing?”
The quality of life here depends on local policies and leaders. A few weeks ago, for instance, a cityhood movement northeast of Emory was defeated by only 139 votes. Yes, 139 votes. The resolution sought to create a city, Lavista Hills, stretching from Toco Hills (rumors were that it split the Publix in half) to Northlake Mall. To our west, there is talk of annexing Emory into the city of Atlanta (despite its zip code, Emory isn’t in Atlanta!). The new city of Brookhaven to the north is eyeing commercial property near Emory. Local entities — schools, taxes, traffic, housing, policing — shape life at Emory for its students and everyone who works here.
Check out the many local social media groups, for instance, Clairmont Heights, Medlock Park, Kirkwood or Grant Park. Countywide movements for better government, Reform DeKalb and Blueprint II, are underway to improve services and schools and to eliminate corruption. Even if your cause is filling potholes — a worthy cause, as anyone who drives or bikes up Clifton Road knows — your success will depend on who is in charge of local government. (Digression 1: The DeKalb County Pothole Hotline is 404-297-3813). If you care about traffic, take the road safety survey from the Georgia Department of Transportation about Ponce de Leon and Scott Boulevard, if you rent a home near campus, perhaps your water bills in DeKalb County may have fluctuated wildly (Digression 2: For water bill complaints, email [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]). You are surrounded by a vibrant political culture. If you reside here and are a citizen, your voice is needed. Each vote you cast, whether for county commissioners, mayors or judges, can help build a better community for you, as well as the faculty, staff and administrators whom you want to join us or stay here.
Let me close with a plea for you to participate especially in national elections. Presidents, prime ministers, governors, courts and legislatures are rendering decisions with vast consequences. The stakes are very high. Many questions are impossibly complicated. Urgent matters of global security, the environment, immigration and human rights are on the ballots. Who knows what will shake our world tomorrow? We are entering turbulent election cycles in many countries and need calm and informed votes. Wherever you stand, whatever you believe, your voice is vital. If you are fortunate enough to live in a country where elections count, let your presence at the polls and the wisdom of your vote each year be an enduring and positive legacy of the tragedies we witnessed last week.
This Emory office can help you register.
Dr. Judith A. Miller is an associate professor in the Department of History.