When citizens fail to vote, democracy suffers
By MADHU SRIDHAR
This column first appeared in the San Antonio-Express-News on Monday, Sept. 25.
More than 200 years ago when George Washington was first elected president of the United States, fewer than 25 percent of the adult population had the right to vote. Three-quarters of the people who were to build our country were excluded from this simple act of self-determination because of race, sex or lack of property.
It has been a long road to expand the franchise and open democracy’s door by ratifying the 15th, 19th and the 26th amendments so that Americans are not denied the right to vote because of race, sex or age. The power base of American democracy has gradually widened, moving the nation closer to the vision set forth in the Declaration of Independence of a government that derives its power from “the consent of the governed.”
We give our consent whenever we participate in the democratic process, and one of the important ways we give our consent is by exercising our right to vote.
Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day, a time to build and strengthen our representative democracy. It is the day when voting-age citizens are urged, all across the nation, to take the first step and register to vote if they are not already registered. It is also a day to ensure that records are updated in case of a move or name change. There are many nonprofits, libraries, schools and more that will be holding voter registration drives on this day to empower voters. Voting is not just a precious right but, in the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, “the first duty of democracy.” In order to vote, you first must register to vote.
According to Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen, there are 1,046,523 registered voters in Bexar County, which is approximately 73.3 percent of the voting age population (based on a July 1, 2016, census update). Kudos to the Bexar County Elections Department and scores of volunteer deputy registrars entrusted with the responsibility of increasing voter registration in the county all year.
However, most of those registered do not vote. The bigger challenge, therefore, is the inertia. This past May, in the
mayoral election, only 11.32 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. The numbers were 13.16 percent forthe runoff in June. The turnout for the comparable race to the upcoming November elections in 2015 was an abysmal 8.13 percent.
Does democracy include freedom to opt out? What price do we pay for opting out? Who is paying the price?
When a large percentage of citizens do not participate in elections, the future of our democracy is threatened. The decisions made by those holding elected offices affect us all. Their decisions will have an impact on finding good jobs, how good our schools are, how safe our streets are, how much we will pay in taxes, whether we can afford adequate health care, whether we protect our environment and much more.
As drama critic George Jean Nathan said, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.”
Don’t be a good citizen who doesn’t vote. It is not only important that you make it to the polls but to urge your family and friends to join you, too.
We are living in a momentous time, a time that actually requires more, not less, citizen involvement in the political process. The strength of our democracy is measured, in large part, by the full and valued participation of all its citizens. Representative democracy requires active engagement of its citizens.
Democracy doesn’t run by itself. We can’t switch self-government to autopilot. It’s up to each of us, the citizens, to make it work.
As President Harry Truman once said, “It is not the hand that signs the laws that holds the destiny of America; it is the hand that casts the ballot.”