Protests of all shapes and sizes have been in the news quite a bit over the past year. Between the Arab Spring, the Tea Party, the backlash against austerity in Europe and now the Occupy movement, it seems that not a day goes by without some coverage of a protest movement. And for good reason – protest is a vital part of the democratic process. Citizens need a way to express discontent with their government. This is a central tenant of democracy.

But what actually is a protest? Images of crowds marching and chanting, teenagers dressed in black throwing Molotov cocktails and lines of riot police come to mind. The actual definition of a protest is much simpler, though: an action taken to show objection to something. The aforementioned examples clearly fit that definition, but one type of protest, the simplest, and, in the United States, the most powerful, is missing: the act of voting.

We are blessed in this country to have elections that are regular and almost always fair. In the vast majority of our elections, there is no doubt that the winner is indeed the legitimate winner. Not all countries are so lucky. In some, elections aren’t just irregular – they’re non-existent. And in others, the results of elections are decided well before any ballots are cast. When this is the case, non-voting forms of protests are clearly the best – and sometimes only – option. If the people’s voice cannot be heard through the ballot box, they must make it heard somehow.

The power of the ballot is important to keep in mind as we see protest movements on both the right and left sweep the country. General forms of protest, like demonstrations, are still powerful – just look at the civil rights movement. But without pro-civil rights candidates being voted into office, the civil disobedience and mass demonstrations would have been much less effective. So by all means, go out and make noise, fight for what you believe in, but don’t let voting get lost in all the ruckus.

Unfortunately, the right to vote, one of the most important rights in our country, is being curtailed by Gov. Scott Walker and his colleagues in the state legislature. The voter ID law, which requires that people show a photo ID in order to vote, disproportionately affects minorities, students and the poor – groups that tend to vote against Republicans. It is simply immoral for anyone to play politics with the right to vote. Luckily, the state’s universities have done what they can to counter this by issuing new IDs for students without some form of state ID. It’s worth noting the irony in the fact that, as a result of this law, the University of Wisconsin is paying around $100,000 over five years to help its students comply with these new rules while at the same time facing massive budget cuts from the same lawmakers who passed them.

Students will need to be proactive in order to get these IDs, though. Starting on the first day of next semester (Jan. 23), they can be picked up from Union South. It’s crucial that any student who doesn’t have a valid photo ID (like out-of-state students) take just a few minutes out of their day to protect their right to vote. Thousands of students on campus have already taken the time to sign the recall petitions, but this will all be for naught if students get turned away at the polls because they didn’t take the couple of minutes necessary to get the proper ID.

The next year will no doubt be a turbulent one. It will be full of protest and arguing. People on both sides (or neither side) of the political spectrum will be protesting in the streets. But through it all, let’s try not to forget about our simplest, most powerful form of protest. It would be a shame for voter apathy to win out over the will of the people.

Joe Timmerman (jptimmerman@wisc.edu) is a freshman intending to major in economics and math.