Cheryl C. Kagan is the Maryland state senator for the 17th district, which includes the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Rockville and Gaithersburg. A native of the community she represents, Kagan previously served eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates. A proud Democrat, Senator Kagan tells JW magazine why there’s just no excuse to sit out elections. Part of our #VoteLikeAGirl series, the following has been edited for clarity and length.
by Lauren Landau
Q: Why do you vote like a girl?
A: I vote because I think my voice and my opinions matter. I think that women tend to care about people more than profits. While we are conscious of the present, I think we tend to be future-oriented in terms of the next generation and the impact of top quality schools, a clean environment and peace and justice. I think we’re really conscious of those issues and when we do our homework, that’s how we vote.
Q: We know that only a fraction of eligible voters actually make it out to the voting booths. Do you find that troubling? Why should people—and women in particular—participate in the electoral process?
A: My favorite campaign button says “vote or you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.” So many Americans complain about this, that and the other. They have a distrust and disinterest in many political things, and yet while they’re unhappy and gripe about it, they don’t always vote.
When I get letters, phone calls, or emails from constituents or interest groups, and I look them up in our voter database and find that they have not voted, I don’t care if they’re of the other party. I don’t care if they have supported my opponent. I want to see that they are engaged in the most basic job that every American has, and that is to cast a ballot in the primary and the general election, all the time. And if they don’t, they just lose credibility with me.
Q: So you do your homework. What do you tell those people? Do you give them a guilt trip?
A: Senators in Maryland get to pick notaries public and we get to choose from those who apply. We also have scholarship money for students who are doing either college or graduate work. One of the things that I look for [among the people who apply] is are they registered, and do they vote? At this point, virtually everyone can be registered through Motor Voter so you’re already on the books. In Maryland you can vote by mail, you can early vote or you can vote on Election Day —so there’s no good excuse [for not voting]. Laziness, cynicism or disinterest doesn’t qualify.
We used to turn down as a notary anybody who wasn’t registered to vote and I give kind of a mini lecture to anyone who is a Kagan senatorial scholar. It is your job [I tell them] as a senatorial scholar to be a role model. Role models are community leaders and community leaders influence their friends and neighbors. Part of your job is to be informed, to vote and to talk to your friends and neighbors about whom you are supporting and why. It is a responsibility. I don’t care if you vote against me every single time. That’s fine. But you have to vote.
Q: And that’s what we’re about here at JWI. Whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent, just get out there and vote!
A: I totally agree, and I’m wearing my “H” pin because I’m with her, and I am really hoping that we’re about to elect our first woman president, not just because of her gender, but because of her talent, passion, experience, and the respect with which she is held around the country and around the world. So I am hopeful and optimistic and working hard.
Q: I’m sure Secretary Clinton appreciates that. You mentioned some of the reasons why people might not vote or might not be registered to vote. But it isn’t just a disinterest in voting. What are some of the hurdles that people face and how can we help alleviate some of those issues?
A: America is increasingly diverse. I sponsored the “Informed Voter” bill, which we got enacted with “Language Access,” because those who don’t yet speak English fluently may have trouble understanding government and candidates’ platforms. By making our government fully accessible, regardless of which language you speak, we can help people engage more. In other states, but thankfully not in Maryland, there are voter ID laws and other barriers to voting. The biggest barrier to voting in Maryland is being a citizen, and then coming out [to vote]. Once you’re a citizen, in my view, there is just no excuse not to vote, not to cast your opinion, not to be heard.
Q: What are some of the issues that feel particularly relevant or pressing in 2016 that this election could significantly impact?
A: Maryland has no elections at the state level in a presidential year. We have the off years, so the governor, the general assembly, our legislature, our county councils and other [elected positions] are not on the ballot this year—and neither am I. So we’re all looking at Washington and at Congress. Because we are in Maryland, we are right next door, and are very aware of and affected by—as we all are—national decisions. Certainly the leader of the free world is going to be making international decisions about war and peace; about trade; about where we do or don’t intervene abroad; about refugees. Immigration obviously has been a huge issue, but [there are also] budget priorities and [the need for] support for our children and for moving forward, for the environment and climate change.
I am a partisan Democrat, but I also believe in bipartisanship. So many Republicans, though, are climate change deniers. The scientific data is not debatable, and yet, depending on who gets in office, we are either going to take action to protect our Earth for future generations or we’re not. We’re either going to work with other countries on treaties, and enforce them and comply with them, or we’re not. Obviously issues like women’s reproductive choice are at stake, depending on who runs Congress. So there are hundreds of issues and I am fervently hoping that we’re going to have a dynamic, thoughtful, progressive new U.S. Senator from Maryland; a terrific new congressman from my district, Jamie Raskin, a Senate colleague of mine; and Hillary Clinton, an effective leader, in the White House.
Please vote! It’s vitally important, and make sure you are prepared. Don’t just vote based on gender or race or religion. Do your homework and figure out who is supporting issues that are of concern to you.