Voting is not a sacred act

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Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor

 

A recently retired Connecticut voting machine. –Photo courtesy of Connecticut Employment Law Blog

I have always looked forward to Election Day. It thrilled me as a child to accompany my mother into the voting booth at the local high school. She’d help me pull to the right the big lever that closed the curtain, and then let me “vote” by pulling the little switches for each candidate she supported. After receiving our “I Voted Today” stickers, we’d drive over to a nearby elementary school to chat with Jeanette, my mother’s best friend, who has faithfully worked the polls every primary and election that I can remember.

I learned from an early age that poll workers, who put in nearly 20 hours on voting days to ensure that all of us get to vote, are some of our most commendable citizens and are essential to the democratic process. All in all, I was reared to have a reverent appreciation for freedom and for voting. The act of choosing one’s leaders, on a gusty and chilly November day, had about it a quality something akin to a rite.

Writing a week before the 2012 election, I wish to make an important point: Voting is not a rite, and it is by no means akin to your Sunday obligation.

When I tell people that I am seriously considering not voting for president this year (see this edition’s election spread for some of my reasons), I often get shocked looks and am sometimes rather crossly told, “It’s your duty.” I disagree.

What is the purpose of voting? Voting, at least to my practical mind, is ultimately a means to an end: the end of good government. In my younger, more ideological days, I thought there was only one acceptable scheme of government: democracy. As I became more politically conservative, I grew to favor the republican form of government our Founders bequeathed us and which the progressives undid. As I became more Catholic, still an ongoing process, I came to realize that there is no one “right” form of government. If a monarch is good and true and just and wise, then I’d rather he rule me than Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

Monarchy, republic, democracy – these are not ends in themselves. What we should desire is a moral society, a fair society, a prosperous society; a society where the dignity of each human life is respected and cherished from conception to natural death; a society where a man who puts in an honest day’s work can earn enough money to care for himself, his wife and his children. To the extent that, among a particular people and at a particular time, hereditary monarchy or the electoral college or the direct election of senators serves those ends, then to that extent I favor this or that system. But the system isn’t the point.

Our obligation, I believe, is not to vote, but to be informed citizens, willing the good of our country and of our fellow Americans. We ought to follow the news attentively, enmeshing ourselves to some extent in the details of the events and debates taking place in town hall, in our state capital and in Washington. Unless he is simply overwhelmed by work and familial obligations, an adult ignorant of the affairs of his town, state and nation is unworthy of his liberty; he’s a bad citizen. But if, upon rational reflection, he concludes that both major-party candidates for an office would make bad office-holders, then he ought not feel compelled to support either one. If, considering the various third-party candidates, he finds none who truly represents his views, then he ought not feel compelled to vote for that office at all. The moral and deliberative man, I fear, may find himself in this situation.

This is not to say that the non-voter has fulfilled all his responsibilities. Like the voter, he ought to act as a devoted citizen more than one day a year. He ought to write letters to the editor, sign and organize petitions, attend local board meetings, and serve on juries. Voting – or not-voting – is but one way we have to positively affect the political life of our community. If anything, it is one of the least efficacious things we can do as individual citizens: One vote may decide a town-council election, but it has never decided a presidential race.

Before finishing, I should say a word to the notion that one should always at least choose the least bad candidate. It’s a notion I find unsatisfying. No candidate is perfect, of course, just as no voter could be perfectly informed and judicious; I do not seek perfection in my politicians. It seems to me, though, that there can certainly be times when no candidate on a ballot even sketchily represents one’s political views, or possesses the minimum intelligence and judgment to hold office. Furthermore, a party can mutate to such an extent that it becomes hardly recognizable as the beast it once was, and thus should no longer command the support of the old party faithful.

Throughout history, in this country and in others, political parties have come and gone. Perhaps either or both of the Democratic and Republican parties, too, deserve to go the way of the Federalists, Whigs and Democratic-Republicans. The patriotic conservative or liberal who has been burned again and again by the major parties ought seriously to consider withdrawing his support from a party, and perhaps a system, that is doing his country little good.

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