october 8 will be the last day to postmark your registration form in pennsylvania (it might be later in other states) for the november 7 election and as the date was quickly approaching i thought i'd write a note to remind people of the importance of participating in the political process.
the right to vote is arguably one of the most important rights of citizenship in a democratic country, yet a substantial number of us citizens choose not to excercise that right. in the 18-24 age bracket voter turnout was a mere 36% in the 2000 election. considering that voting turnout gets smaller in the "off" years--years where no president is elected--we can expect about the same turnout or smaller this november. the question is why, oh why wouldnt people and especially young people want to be part of the political class and instead prefer to be part of the class that is led and dictated to like a shepherd would do to a herd of sheeps?
it is certainly tempting and seducing to let other people worry for us, vote for us, legislate for us. it is so much easier to let the politicians do their thing and avoid having to think about what's going on in washington, such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes are most unwelcome. yet for the person who does not participate in democracy his or her concerns become non-existent and his or her existence a numerical abstraction.
for some it's atrocious apathy, for others it's the belief that one's vote doesnt matter and then there are those who vote during presidential election but wont in this coming election because this one is "just" for congress.
all these reasons make me cringe as they show a fundamental lack of understanding of democracy; no matter how indifferent you are to government, you can be assured that the government and its laws will not be indifferent to you, if you dont vote, your vote will certainly have no effect on policy making and electing congress is just or perhaps even more important than electing a president as congress is the legislative branch of the government and most likely to regulate your daily life.
but i cringe for a more personal reason as well; i've lived in the us as a belgian national ever since i was sixteen i've never had the opportunity to vote and probably wont have for a long time. this and a constrained first amendment right--freedom of speech is undoubtfully less free when one is fingerprinted at every port of entry and when one requires a visa to work and reside--are probably the two liberties that i miss the most as an expatriate. the pundits might say well if you miss your precious liberties so much, why not go back to belgium? i may miss my liberties but they miss the point; i'm not in the us because i'm forced to be here, i choose to be here, i like being here, in fact i like it so much that i'm willing to sacrifice two of my most precious liberties. but you, my american friends, dont have to sacrifice anything, you can and you should exercise this most important of right.
because not voting is in effect choosing to to not have a voice and in effect choosing to reduce one's rights to that of a foreigner, except in this case it'd be choosing to be a foreigner in one's own country. not only would this be a disservice to one's self and one's country but it also constitutes an assault on the foundation of democracy.
there are too many, many people in this world who can only dream of meaningful elections (ie ones that arent rigged), who would treasure the enpowerment of a vote and are envious of democratic societies, not voting is not only a slap in their face, it shows a lack of appreciation for the values of a free society.
voting alone however is not enough to keep free societies free and prosperous--even free societies need checks and balances--not only is it important to vote, it's important to make one's vote matter. indeed democracy does not merely translate in taking some time off from work or school every two years to cast a ballot, it doesnt end with a vote for the republican party or a vote for the democratic party, rather it starts with that vote and should continue as an active involvement in the political process in order to ensure that the goverment's power remains derived from the will of the people and for the benefit of the people.
from this conjecture it becomes clear that people ought to follow what their congressmen are doing and how they're voting, they ought to know who their representative is and call him or her up when concerned about some issues; if you think the government should have the option to torture "ticking bombs" terrorist pick up your phone and tell your representative, or if you think gay marriage should be allowed write him or her a letter.
it doesnt matter so much whether to some torture is immoral and reprehensible in all cases or that to others gay marriage is an attack on god and family values, what matters is that people take ownership and responsibility for the choices made in the capitol so they can help shape the destiny of their society. if this sounds like too much of a hasstle, and representatives are left unaccountable then decisions will de facto be ceded to persuading powers of special interests and lobbying groups.
this is the ugly truth about democracy, left unchecked it will unfortunately disguise itself as a form of government by the people but for the dominating elite.
as a final consideration, i would like to talk about the issue of partisanship. i've noticed first hand the political polarization of this country and how it's become increasingly difficult to transcend the republican-democrat bridge. often enough in this country, people are born into a party, if your parents voted republican you'll tend to vote republican just because it'll feel like the right to do and similarlry if your parents are democrats. this is absolutely ridiculous and actually quite anti-democratic. this creates situations in which you have on the one hand people who vote with absolutely no knowledge of any candidates position on any issue but know nonetheless exactly who to vote for simply based on party affiliation and on the other hand people who know the candidates and their positions but prefer to stay at home during election day because they dislike the candidate of their preferred party, rather than vote for a candidate of the opposing party.
politics isnt an easy thing to navigate and political parties arent polar opposites, there's a whole spectrum of opinions that span both parties and so you will find low-tax demanding democrats and pro-choice republicans. it is therefore of utmost importance to remain flexible and independent minded about the candidates, to demand that they too once elected remain flexible and independent and to vote with a conscience on who we think would best uphold our values and preserve our democracy.