An ex-student of mine wrote me, “I’m an American . . . I have the freedom to not give a crap enough to vote, and the right to complain long and loud about the guy that gets elected.” I think of Rebecca Crawford, Martha Prioleau Simmons, the congregation of Redeemer Reformed Episcopal Church and other members of the Pineville community. How would they respond to this attitude?
The people of Pineville understood the power of the vote and were willing to struggle for it. Americans love to complain. But so many of us feel it’s passé to be a dutiful and responsible citizen. We are all familiar with our rights, but many of us feel our personal entitlement is the reason this country exists—a free pass to do whatever we want to. I think that
attitude is part of the reason the United States is in such a dire situation. Too many Americans have decided democracy is just about them and so they quit participating.
The Founding Fathers limited voting to white men who owned property, paid taxes and (in all thirteen colonies) believed in God. Most of the people who fit this category were also educated and felt a responsibility to their new government because they had fought a war to earn it. Their participation was a patriotic duty. They also wanted to protect the country from elected officials who would take advantage of their power. After they’d fought a war where Americans died for the right to vote they devised an extraordinary document which provided separation of powers, checks and balances, and separation of church and state—our Constitution. A purpose of this document: to make sure that no one took advantage of their elected position.
The history of America since then has been a struggle by other groups to gain the right and privilege to vote and support the Constitution. Most white male citizens earned the right to vote during the time of President Jackson (1829-1837) when it was more important to be a good shot and capable woodsman than it was to own property. As a result of the Civil
War (1861-1865), black men got the right to vote, although it took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and1960’s to make that promise a reality. Women didn’t get the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment (1920).
Voting used to be important. What went wrong? There is a popular phrase, “If you like your freedom, thank a veteran.” And it applies to all of those men and women who died trying to protect the Constitution and the country built upon it. It seems to me that voting would be such an important privilege that we’d have a ninety-five percent turnout for every election.
However, the national statistics from 1960 to 2008 show how unimportant voting is to those of us who appreciate the Founding Fathers and revere our servicemen and women’s sacrifice. The highest percentage of voters participating after 1960 was 61.9% in 1964. The lowest turnout: 36.4% in 1998. The new century didn’t prompt us to vote:
(The underlined percentages are years when presidents, senators and representatives are elected. The others are interim elections where only senators and members of the House of Representatives are elected.)
If our elected officials are not doing the job we want them to do, it’s because we have given them carte blanche to wield their power without limitations. We don’t use the most basic tool of a democracy: voting. If politicians have become as “evil” as some folks believe, it’s because we turned them loose and then refused to do anything more than whine. It’s
time for us to take back the power the Founding Fathers gave us: the right to vote. Perhaps, Mrs. Simmons and Mrs. Crawford would point out that all we have to do is talk to voters one at a time until they understand how important they are.