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Writing For Justice: Does voting actually matter?
A recurring column
by Caroline Siede

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How you answer that question probably comes down to how old you are, how cynical you are, and how much government corruption you've experienced over the years.

It's easy to feel like one vote has little impact on the massive political machine. Perhaps that's why only about 34 percent of Chicago's registered voters participated in February's mayoral election ( potentially one of the lowest voter turnouts in the city's history ). But if there's one thing that recent election taught us, it's that a single vote ( or at least a handful of them ) can actually make a difference.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to win the 50 percent majority he needed to secure his reelection by a mere five percent. He'll now face Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in a run-off election April 7. And no matter who you voted for in the election ( if you did ) this feels like a big win for the democratic process.

By all accounts Emanuel should have won the election easily. He had both a multi-million dollar campaign and the power of President Obama behind him. But as Garcia amassed grassroots support, he quickly became a viable option for those dissatisfied with Emanuel's first term in office. And that's ultimately a good thing. Even Emanuel's supporters can appreciate that the Mayor must now think critically about his time in office. Humility and self-assessment should be a regular part of politics; this run-off ensures they will be, at least for a while.

It's easy to think of voting as an annoying obligation. Figuring out which ward you live in, reading up on aldermanic positions, and traipsing out to a polling place in the middle of winter aren't the most fun ways to spend a Tuesday. But even a cursory glance at American history reminds us that voting is a hard-fought right we shouldn't take lightly.

That's the big take away from Ava DuVernay's phenomenal film Selma, which reminds us that only 50 years ago American citizens were killed simply for asking for the right to vote. Although Black ( male ) suffrage was legally guaranteed by the 15th Amendment in 1870, voter discrimination ran rampant in the Jim Crow south for decades until civil-rights activists drew attention to the cause and Lyndon B. Johnson finally passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That violent historical struggle stands in sharp contrast to Chicagoans who cited "long lines" or "cold weather" as the reason they didn't vote in February.

And the Selma marches are just a small part of the struggle for voting rights in America. In 1919, women finally earned the right to vote after years of campaigning for suffrage. In 1971, young people successfully petitioned to have the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, reasoning that if young men were required to fight in Vietnam, they should at least have a political voice too. Indeed our entire country was founded on the desire for fair political representation, exemplified in the call for "No taxation without representation."

If there's one aspect of American history I find most inspiring, it's our country's ability to change. Even the Founding Fathers—who owned slaves and denied equal rights for women—realized that cultural values aren't absolute, and they created mechanisms for peaceful political evolution. The constitutional amendment process they put in place would later be used to free slaves, give women the right vote, and grant young people a political voice.

Whether or not you think we need a change this election season, I encourage every Chicagoan to make his or her voices heard in April. ( The voter registration grace period ends April 4. ) Even if you feel the outcome of the election is predetermined, your vote will determine by what percent the candidate wins. And symbolic statements make waves too. The recent run-off election garnered national headlines and sparked discussions about Chicago politics. That wouldn't have happened if Emanuel had won in a landslide.

So educate yourself on the positions of both Emanuel and Garcia. Look at their experience, their history of public service, and the criticism lodged against them. Find out if the candidates have strong policies on LGBT rights, if they support an ordinance demanding reparations for survivors of police torture, where they stand on red light cameras, and how they plan to strengthen Chicago's economy. And most importantly, get out there and vote April 7. Because yes, we can make a difference. In fact, it's our Constitutional right to do so.

Caroline Siede is a freelance writer living in Chicago where the cold never bothers her anyway. You can also find her work on The A.V. Club and Boing Boing.

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