This election season is appalling. There, I’ve said it. If, like me, you ever held any shred of idealism about how democracy should function, surely you are aghast at this endless political cycle, the depressing ugliness of the ads, the Big Lie tactic of juvenile name-calling and the hollow shrieks of fundraising e-mails. It’s so horrifying – how will trick-or-treaters and haunted houses even compete? Yet as much as these campaigns dismay and disgust, I’m up typing this for one purpose only: to urge you, my neighbors and friends, to vote.

In 2013 I re-entered public service, and have had the privilege to observe government at extremely close range. I am compelled to report, with some urgency, the following: elections make a difference. They really do. And at the end of the day – Election Day – our vote matters.

Commercials and debates focus on personalities as if elected officials were monarchs who with a scepter’s sweep could dictate change. It does not work that way. Institutions are inertial. Habits and structures resist rapid reform. Some compare governing to trying to turn around a tanker; trying to turn around a fleet of them is more apt. It can take years to correct course, undo damage done to agencies, and put a stamp on policy. There are no magic wands, just hard work. A huge part of that is the passion and values of the people that officials appoint. What determines who makes those critical, less-visible, choices? Our vote.

In no way is this an election where “They’re all the same” or “My vote won’t matter.” Some contrasts are dramatic. Many races are razor-close. At the top of the ticket, Illinois’s Senate race pits an incumbent and an opponent who take polar opposite tacks on issues from cultural to global. In the mud-wrestle for the Governor’s mansion, underlying the sharp rhetoric are stark differences on what interests government should serve and how to pay for progress. At ballot bottom are influential referenda on what is fair for our lowest-paid workers and whether an employer should leverage health insurance to limit reproductive rights.

Was a hike from Illinois’s 3% flat income tax long overdue? Can that hike be replaced with taxes on haircuts and legal fees? It’s your chance to speak.

Is the nastiness a turnoff? For sure. Should it make us stay home? No way. That’s exactly what the “dark money” flooding the airwaves wants. The fewer who vote, the greater the influence of special interests, not just on Election Day, but for years to come.

Citizenship can be hard work. Fact-checking wild accusations, or digging to see if fiscal proposals are voodoo economics, is difficult. So, like government, voting is imperfect. What is perfectly clear is that any hope for our system turns on citizens giving direction as best as possible. Fight negativity with a positive statement. Vote.

Mr. Smith is a long-time Evanston resident who works in State government The opinions expressed in this essay are personal and unofficial.