Like so many people around the world, I’ve been thrilled at reports from Tunisia over the past few days of citizens lining up to vote in huge numbers in the first free election in their nation’s history. It’s estimated that 90 percent of the country’s 4.1 million eligible voters participated. When I wrote about the unfolding events of Tunisia's revolution back in January, the future was not yet clear. Today, the images of women, young people, workers, and the elite waiting eagerly on the street for this moment of political empowerment tell a remarkably promising story of change. While the outcome is not yet fully known, the election itself represents the first concrete step toward democracy in a country that threw off a brutal and dictatorial regime only ten months ago.  I remember being similarly overwhelmed more than 15 years ago by images of South Africans carrying their elderly grandparents on their backs for miles so they could participate in their country’s first democratic election—an election that would end the rule of apartheid. 

Yet whenever I see huge numbers of people lining up at a polling booth to ensure their voices are heard, I admit I am filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I rejoice that democratic forces—so often the result of enormous personal sacrifice and so frequently led by the younger generation—are gaining strength around the world. But these are also the moments when I feel particularly outraged at the voter apathy in my own country. You would have to go back to the federal elections in 1964 to see voter turnout in the United States rise above 60 percent. Even with the outpouring of young people who worked so hard to elect US President Obama in 2008—a mere 56 percent of eligible voters made the effort to vote. What could possibly be more important on Election Day than showing up and registering your hopes for the future or your deep displeasure at the status quo? 

I recognize there are many reasons that people don't vote—including disappointment in promises broken, deep cynicism that anything can really change, and the growing number of pernicious local laws designed to keep minorities and others away from the polls. Yet to me, voting for the candidates of your choice remains the minimum act we owe as citizens to our own hard-fought struggle for democracy so many years ago.

So today, I'm filled with admiration for the Tunisian people, who are experiencing the first real fruits of their non-violent, youth-led revolution. And I’m hopeful that Americans, too, can regain their belief in the power of the ballot box—whether inspired by our own home-grown movements for change like the current “Occupy Wall Street” protests or by our newly empowered compatriots around the globe.