22 November 2006
Extending the Vote to the Common Man
When Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party in the early 1800s he hoped to extend the right to vote to the common man – white males over the age of twenty-one who did not own land. Though our definition of the term “common man” is significantly different than that of Jefferson’s time it seems to have become apparent that a new extension of the vote to the modern common man is in order. Disorganization and confusion at the polls, lack of education and incentive for voters, and simple voter apathy have all contributed to staggeringly low voter turnout rates in a nation which is based almost entirely upon its citizens’ right to choose.
According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States approximately 54% of the voting age population – Americans who are both citizen and resident and over the age of eighteen – cast their ballots in the 2004 Presidential election (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 125th edition, 2005). This number may be inaccurate – Assistant Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University has done research that shows the voter turnout rate was actually closer to 61% (United States Election Study, http://elections.gmu.edu/Voter_Turnout_2004.htm) in the 2004 Presidential Election. In an article written by Kevin Wingert, Professor McDonald is quoted as saying “the inherent flaw with voter turnout is the population it is compared to” (Kevin Wingert, “Denying Election Myths?”, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, November 7th 2006). Voter turnout rates are counted against the voting age population – all persons in a locality who are over the age of 18 (Wingert). This includes prisoners, persons incarcerated in a mental asylum and non-citizens. McDonald’s statistics use the voting eligible population – instead of measuring voter turnout against all persons over 18, it is compared to all people who are actually eligible to vote. Despite being more accurate than the traditional studies McDonald’s statistics do not show a voter turnout rate adequate to represent the citizens of this country. If 61% of those eligible to vote actually do so, that leaves 39% of those eligible unrepresented. Though it would be virtually impossible to secure 100% voter turnout rate, I believe that it is necessary to drastically increase the amount of ballots cast in our elections.
The United States is a country of immigrants. Therefore among the chief problems with American voting is the language barrier. Many immigrants do not speak English – many of those who do speak it do not speak it well enough to understand the sometimes complicated language used in political campaigning. The most obvious method to remedy this problem would be to provide voting ballots in many languages. However, this would be an unrealistic option. It is likely that there is no language that is not spoken by at least one person in the United States – that is somewhere approximating 6,809 languages (Linguistic Society of America, http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-howmany.cfm). Aside from the inherent difficulties in printing 6,809 different ballots, accommodating immigrants who do not speak English well enough to understand the language within a ballot may be a step toward weaker education for immigrants and less incentive for immigrants to learn to speak English. The opposite is what is necessary: stronger linguistic education for immigrants and easier access to that education. This includes everything from better teaching to immigrant children in schools to a government run website that helps immigrants understand what they are reading when they look through an election catalog.
Another serious problem is voter apathy. Many voters simply don’t care enough to vote. This is commonly due to the mentality that one vote – “my vote” – does not make a difference. Perhaps that would be true – if there was only one person in the United States who chose not to vote. This mentality starts to create problems when more than one person believes it. One vote doesn’t make a difference. 84,274,000 votes do. It is also true that the average American may not see much reason to vote – it becomes just another hassle in one’s already hectic life. These attitudes may be remedied through a fairly simple idea: Voting should be a holiday. Just as we celebrate our independence from England on July 4th we should celebrate our constitutional right to alter our government every November. Employees should be given extra time off during the day to go vote. Though many employers would argue that their employees would take the extra time and do nothing – and in many cases they would be correct – I believe this would create a drastic increase in voter turnout. Voting is a proud American tradition and should be treated as such. Following this trend of treating voting as an American tradition and celebration, children should be taught that way from an early age. In schools children celebrate Thanksgiving, July 4th, Christmas, Hanukkah and almost any other holiday one can imagine – though none of these are as relevant today as voting. If children were taught to look forward to election day and the celebrations that accompany it, many of them may prove to carry this excitement into their adult lives and therefore care about casting their ballots when they are eligible to do so.
Another way to increase voter turnout is to reconsider the voting rights of ex-convicts and even incarcerated felons. In an article they wrote for the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2005, John Kleinig and Kevin Murtagh say “six states – Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia – permanently disqualify ex-offenders (though in some cases with some opportunities for restoration)” (John Kleinig and Kevin Murtagh, “Disenfranchising Felons”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 22, Number 3, 2005). Anyone who is convicted of a felony in this state essentially suffers the lifelong sentence of not being allowed their right to vote, even after they have served their sentence in prison. This is unfair to these people: Nowhere in the constitution does it say that a ex-felon can be disallowed from voting after their judicially assigned sentence is served. Though it could be argued that states have the right to choose if ex-convicts are allowed to vote, that decision does not only affect the state: It affects the entirety of the nation. A first step in dealing with this issue may be to require all states to allow ex-offenders to vote in national elections, if not in state and municipal elections. Another, more radical approach is to grant limited voting rights to felons who are currently serving their prison sentences. Though felons should be punished and some of their rights taken away, I believe that allowing the incarcerated to vote on issues dealing with their treatment, the facilities they are kept in and other issues directly relating to their lives as prisoners would be a big step in improving both representation of the American public and the poor treatment of the incarcerated in many prisons in the United States.
One of the most common ideas to increase voter turnout in the United States is th make voting compulsory. Compulsory voting would require eligible citizens to register and vote or suffer penalties including citations, fines and even jail time. Though it is likely that compulsory voting would bring voter turnout much higher, I do not believe that is the right thing to do in America. Americans in general resent being forced to do anything – rightfully so, especially in the case of voting. In a true democracy, citizens must not only have the right to vote, but also the right to choose whether or not to vote; I believe that it is necessary to get our citizens to want to vote, not to force them to do so.
In the 2004 election, 131,426,000 Americans represented all 215,700,000 eligible voters in our nation. That is a figure I cannot be comfortable with. It is vital to the future of our nation that we remedy the problems causing this disconcerting situation: linguistic barriers, voter apathy and unfair treatment of convicted or formerly convicted citizens are issues that must be faced every bit as urgently as the war in Iraq or illegal immigration. If the American people and their government do not take these problems seriously I fear that the day will come when one man’s vote really doesn’t make a difference.