DOES ANYBODY CARE?
Tuesday, May 17th was Primary Day in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Only about 14 1/2% of the registered voters (only about 65% of the eligible voters are registered) bothered to vote. The primaries in many instances determined who the state and county judges would be ,and who would hold county and municipal office and school board membership for the next four years. With Pennsylvania’s peculiar cross-filing system candidates were able to win both primaries for local judicial and school board offices and thus avoid a two party contest in the general election in November.
Pennsylvania contains the unmarked graves of hundreds at Valley Forge, and thousands in the national cemetery at Gettysburg, along with the field in Schwenksville where the plane went down when the passengers sacrificed their lives to prevent terrorists from attacking the White House in DC. These and so many others throughout our nation’s history gave their lives so their descendants could be free. And the greatest symbol of that freedom is the right to vote.
In 1608 the colonists of Jamestown, VA held an election for President of the colony; only a few of the colonists were eligible to vote. In the 1630's, as the Puritans settled throughout New England, colonists struggled to become freemen and to expand the franchise beyond church members to all residents. From the time of the American Revolution to the Civil War the nation was engaged in a great political struggle to assure universal white male suffrage. Property ownership, personal and land, had been a prerequisite for voting - that was abolished. By the time that 600,000 men died in the Civil War all white men had the right to vote. That war brought about the emancipation of black slaves and the 15th amendment to the constitution which guaranteed African American men the right to vote. That right, while initially respected, was soon buried under an avalanche of laws that effectively prevented black men from voting. In1965 the Voting Rights Act restored the authority of that amendment and guaranteed the franchise to all regardless of race. By 1920 the nation had progressed to the point of enacting woman suffrage and in 1972, largely as a result of the Vietnam War, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. So by the 1970's America - the symbol of Democracy - had finally put in place universal adult suffrage.
With a plethora of new election reforms such as absentee voting, registration by mail, permanent personal registration, early voting it was made both easier to register and more convenient to vote. Some states today are even using voting by mail (Oregon) and primary voting on Saturdays (West Virginia). But these changes have not resulted in increased registration nor increased turnouts - to the contrary those numbers are going down to the point where one has to question whether a 10% turnout primary is the most democratic way to chose candidates.
It is clear that the answer to low participation is not tinkering with the system - some changes may be needed because they make sense in and of themselves -- but what will increase voter participation is a change in the attitude of people. Unless our citizens begin to view voting as a Responsibility in addition to a Right they run the risk of losing that freedom altogether. Not the form of it - even fascist dictators and communists hold elections -- but the value of it. Today no matter who votes for whom it appears that the moneyed interests and those who can buy candidates and fund campaigns determine what the elected officials do once in office. This simply reinforces the view of those who say elections don’t count.
We have reached a point in our country where the Right Not to Vote seems to have trumped the right to vote. Only in Iraq and Africa and third world countries do we see lines of people waiting to vote under threat of violence and even death if they participate. Here a little rain keeps people home.
The colonists of the seventeenth century and the patriots of the eighteenth would be appalled today at the non chalant manner in which people treat the opportunity to vote. And Lincoln standing at Gettysburg would be hard pressed to say “that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish form the earth.” We look at this past election in Pennsylvania and are moved to quote the line in 1776 when John Adams, listening to one of George Washington’s numerous appeals to the Continental Congress for help for the Continental Army, exclaims “Does Anybody Care”.
May 23, 2011