The right to vote is cornerstone of American democracy


America is at the crossroads of change, and the Department of Defense has a lot of work to do to change with it. After the death of George Floyd, protests were held all over the nation. We know from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2019 that Black men are disciplined more harshly and at a greater rate than their white counterparts do.

In June, Gen. (David L.) Goldfein directed an IG review specific to the Air Force. At the same time, the GAO also reported women are facing similar injustices. By acknowledging the peaceful protests due to racial injustice and treatment of our female Airmen, we have opened dialog that used to exist in hushed tones; the Air Force has shown we are doing the work. These problems are complicated and sensitive but need to be at the forefront of our conversations and process improvement initiatives.

Underneath it all, there is something that should not be as difficult – our constitutional right to vote. This right extends to the proud veterans, contractors and DOD civilians that have sacrificed for this nation and that keep Wright-Patterson Air Force Base moving. As for our active-duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen, we signed the dotted line to wear this uniform and vowed to sacrifice our lives in our nation's defense.

That sacrifice at its core is for every American’s right to vote, the cornerstone of democracy and the only thing that will keep democracy alive. Sadly, America trails most industrialized countries in voter turnout. What’s more, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, during the 2016 presidential election, active-duty military’s turnout weighed in at just 46 percent, 14 points behind the national 60 percent average.

The military has trailed the civilian population in turnout going back to 2010. The bottom line here is that the 1 percent of our country, who fight our nation's wars, do not widely vote, and lose their voice for whatever issues they believe. What remains true is that the vote is essential during presidential elections and in state and local elections – where, with each ballot, injustices like systemic racism can be resolved over time.

Low military voter turnout is somewhat understood. As military members, we teach taking a neutral stance on politics, and varying states, absentee voting systems may be confusing to incoming Airmen. On the other side of the token, the military, the great melting pot we are, has achieved some of the most significant political and cultural changes in American history.

Please consider the trailblazing Tuskegee Airmen. While segregated from white units, their acts of bravery opened eyes that were previously closed and helped pave the way for the military to desegregate, 16 years before our country passed the Civil Rights Act.

Likewise, women who traditionally only served as nurses were bolstered by Esther Blake, who enlisted on the first minute of the first hour on the first-day woman could join the Air Force and with it took a giant crack at that hard glass ceiling.

Today, America is raging for change. There are mass protests on the streets, COVID has caused our nation's knees to buckle, and the political divide continues to amplify through disinformation.

When scrolling through social media, it is easy to see how divided we have become. Families are against families; everyone has their own opinions, and it seems no one is afraid to voice their opinion online. As we begin dialog in our offices across Wright-Patterson, many emotions will undoubtedly come out, but healing will start.

However, thinking on those work center talks or even the protests in the streets, I fear the undoubtedly eager participants for change may not be registered to vote, nor will they make it to the polls when the time comes. As military and civilian leaders on Wright-Patterson, we must lead this effort!

As we have these necessary, challenging, and sensitive talks with “big A” Airmen about diversity, culture and systemic racism, the conversation must also include each Airmen’s right to vote. This could be something as simple as educating Airmen about their allowed time off to vote, fill out an absentee ballot, or even lead by example and register to vote with them.

The Civil War produced more deaths than any other war in American history. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln, our war-weary president, who stood against the Confederacy to restore the Union, was at risk of losing the reelection and the country itself. With his loss, slavery would not have ended as soon as it did, and our nation would have been torn in two. Oddly enough, much of Lincoln's election victory can be attributed to Union soldiers' massive voter turnout. The election of 1864 was revolutionary in that military members were able to vote by mail, a tradition still practiced today.

No matter the political affiliation, large voter turnout is essential to keep this great experiment we call America alive. Let us start now! Let us do what we know and lead from the front: educate our Airmen, give them the time to vote, explain their rights. Maybe breaking the political divide in this country could be as simple as exercising our constitutionally given right to vote.

Then we can go on to live the words Lincoln reaffirmed at Gettysburg: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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