Like roughly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35, I had never voted. So recently I decided to give it a shot. My reasons for not voting were, I suspect, similar to those of a lot of my peers: It boiled down to a stultifying mixture of apathy and dissatisfaction.
The apathy is not hard to understand: Since the United States government is relatively unintrusive, it is easy to ignore it and concentrate on living one's life. The dissatisfaction, on the other hand, is more complex. A lot of my aversion was linked to the way our political system operates.
Like George Washington, who warned against allowing the political process to become dominated by rival parties, I disliked the binary stamps that such a system puts on people and ideas. I hated watching the parties spend so much time and effort trying to uncover and exploit scandals for political gain.
Often, I was also turned off by the candidates themselves - politicians more interested in dancing with a question than answering it.
None of it smelled right to me.
Despite this, I slowly came to the realization that nonparticipation wasn't going to improve the system, either. So I decided to do what some of my friends and relatives claimed was my obligation - hold my nose and start voting. I got on the Web and downloaded a voter-registration form. It was surprisingly short. I filled in a few blanks and signed my name to certify that I was neither a convicted felon nor mentally incompetent. A lifetime of shirking my civic duty was reversed in 10 minutes.
A few months later, the big day came - my first election. I drove to the local library. Inside, a conference room was devoted to the occasion. Several volunteers stood around, talking politics among themselves and providing guidance to confused newcomers like me. Most of the volunteers looked pretty old, reminding me of a fact that I find curious: The older one gets, the more likely one is to participate in the political process. This seems strange to me because young people seem to have the most to gain or lose from the outcome of government policies. They will live the longest with the results of any political decision.
I guess that, like me, most people take a while before they decide to get involved.
I cast my first ballot. It felt good. I realized that, while I still had issues with the political system, the best way to address those issues was from the inside, not the outside.
Term limits, campaign-finance reform, and other modifications may help. But what will really change the system is if the voters themselves change. An electorate that has an intelligent grasp of the issues, that favors substance over style, and that rewards positive campaigning over negative tactics would produce a true revolution in the kind of politicians our current system produces.
If the electorate demands a certain kind of candidate, the parties (and the independents) will supply them.
With that realization, I finally saw a clear path to the kind of political system I feel America deserves. Since the pathway to that goal lies with the electorate, I knew that inside the system was the place to be - even if the smell can be pretty bad sometimes.