Tricia Stearns plants butternut squash at the Peachtree City Community Garden.
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Opinion: Apathy shouldn’t be the swing vote

A few years ago, I joined a gym, wanting to fight middle age with a little more muscle mass and little less weight. I met a friend at 5 a.m. so that I would not let my work and parenting schedule be an excuse for getting in better shape. Knowing she was waiting on me, I did not turn off the alarm and go back to sleep; together, we tackled those miles on the treadmill. When you get used to it, 5 a.m. gym time feels inspirational. My days felt productive — by the time I served my girls breakfast and packed a few lunches, it felt like noon.

I met an entire subculture of our county that I never knew existed. Gym aficionados pulled into the parking lot and by rote went to start their circuit training. Some gals looked pulled together with cute outfits and a June tan even though it was January. Bodybuilders watched their muscles flex in the wall-to-wall mirrors, and some gym-goers were still asleep. No kidding.

Fast forward to this past primary season, where I ran against incumbent State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone. One day I placed a campaign sign near the gym, and it occurred to me that running for Senate was a lot like my early morning gym workouts: I met a whole lot of people that I have never met before, and they were similar to the folks at the gym — committed and passionate. And like my workouts, I got stronger and more determined, and I was inspired and productive.

I have always been active in the community, from reading in classrooms and chaperoning mission trips, to creating a year-round farmer’s market in Peachtree City that added significant community camaraderie and economic growth.

Running for State Senate gave me new insight into my community, and I found folks very supportive, and others shocked that I jumped into the arena. Who was I to take on an incumbent? Me, who never has posted on political comment on social media, folks forget that the right to run is available to each of us. I discovered that local-level politics is well, politics. I had new friends and new enemies within 15 minutes of qualifying. I opened my mailbox to meet an unknown author dropping mailers on my opponent. I never had so many cups of coffee with complete strangers, and my hand literally hurt some days from shaking hands. My heart cracked wide with hope but clouded over with dismay.

My biggest takeaway: People don’t get out and vote.

Picking up my signs after the primary felt like a 3-D reject letter for a job I really wanted. I think voter turnout is a lot like the gym. Membership is high, but participation is low.

In the May 22 primary, with two women vying to be the Democratic candidate for governor and Republicans divided on their top choice for the slot, I ran against Harbin for his seat in the state Senate, representing District 16. The approximate population of District 16 is 214,745, but only 17,163 citizens voted.

As the first female candidate from District 16, and jumping in late, blind enthusiasm fueled my campaign. Knocking on doors, organizing meet-and-greets, I worked hard at getting to know my base. In Fayette County alone, 51.4 percent are women, 23.4 percent are under age 18, 17.6 percent are over 65, and 4.5 percent are under age five.

Just as exercise is essential for a healthy body, voting is crucial for a healthy community.

This is not an opinion piece whining about why I didn’t win the Senate race. And if you are reading this, it’s not really intended for you. You probably vote. You probably read every editorial and comment on it on Facebook.

You are like the dedicated bodybuilder at the gym, working out, staying engaged.

During the campaign, I met you in cafes, walking by the lake, in boardrooms, in offices. Some of you were amazingly supportive, and others quite rude.

This is intended for the people who didn’t vote, and who probably don’t even read editorials. So do me a favor. Without projecting judgment, shame, or a loaded viewpoint that could divide people at the family Thanksgiving table, give this opinion piece to that someone you know who doesn’t take the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to vote — hand these words to them. Or have them call me. Seriously. We all need to encourage each other to vote. We all need to get involved, starting with local issues.

Voting, the act of casting your voice is a privilege that not all humans get to exercise. We get to vote how we handle issues in our schools, how we improve our roads and communities and how we create jobs.

Voting has never been more accessible with most counties expanding the early voting days and times to accommodate all citizens and the variety of work schedules.

Just like exercise, it can become a lifelong habit that helps our entire health. Voting does the same thing; it keeps our cities and state vibrant, and prevents apathy from becoming the swing vote.

Being a candidate is hard. It costs time and money, and the treadmill seems relentless and thankless at times. Let the candidates know you care about your job, your community, your health, and your kid’s futures. When more of us cast votes, we send the message to each candidate that individually, and collectively, we expect each of us to be represented and not just those who show up to monthly pancake meetings.

Get to know the candidates, as people, first. Judge on what issues are most important to them. If they knock on your door, ask the hard questions. Look up those seeking re-election and their voting records. Take the time to read and form your opinion.

Make up your mind to exercise your American privilege. Drive, walk or get a ride to the polls.

Let each of us be represented in the voting process. Let the 2018 mid-term election be a satisfying turnout where indeed the people have spoken, not just a few. You matter. Your vote matters.