Voting is a right best exercised by people who have taken time to learn about the issues. – Tony Snow, White House spokesman for George W. Bush
On Tuesday, Americans will vote for the president of the United States, members of the U.S. Congress, state and local officials, referendums and constitutional amendments that will determine the quality of our lives for years to come.
Voting is a duty of citizenship none of us should take for granted.
One of the most enduring observations I have read on the importance of voting is that of Daniel Webster, who served in Congress for 29 years before the Civil War: "Impress upon children the truth that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform; that a man may not innocently trifle with his vote; that every elector is a trustee as well for others as himself and that every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others as well as on his own."
As one who came of age when regions of the United States had laws that prevented many citizens from voting, I am confounded to see so many Americans today who choose not to vote.
Ironically, my most memorable experience with voting came in 1994, in a foreign country. As good fortune would have it, I was vacationing in post-apartheid South Africa when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Not only was Mandela the first black to become the Republic of South Africa's leader, the event marked the nation's first fully representative democratic election.
After generations of violence and racial repression, the voting process was surprisingly peaceful. In Cape Town, I was surrounded by jubilant black voters from townships and distant villages who had not dreamed of living to see a black president for whom they had voted. I still see the circle of Zulu women in colorful dress dancing near a fountain.
Looking at the throng of newly freed people — especially the very old who had suffered a lifetime of degradation and disenfranchisement — I was ashamed to acknowledge that I had come to take voting for granted back home in the United States.
Now, I vividly recall that euphoric day in South Africa as we Americans prepare to vote on Tuesday.
Our issues are many, and the candidates are well-financed, clever and determined. Some of our problems are so potentially catastrophic that they will require leaders who can work together, who are committed to serving the public interest above all else.
The ineffective, gridlocked Congress has caused more problems than it has solved.
James Garfield, our 20th president, wrote that "the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption."
We should not trifle with our votes. We have a duty to earnestly educate ourselves before we mark our ballots, letting reality and truth guide us.
Do we know the real issues, or are we merely reacting to our biases? Have we personally researched the issues, or are we relying on the opinions of, say, our favorite talking heads or columnists or drinking and golfing buddies or professors or pastors?
Do we know where the candidates stand on the issues? Do their positions support the public good, or do they hew to the party line? Do the candidates blindly follow the tenets of an ideology or religious dogmas?
These are questions we can answer with logic and reason if we have done our homework.
Voters should look to the future before casting their ballots, honestly assessing where the country is now and how it got there, and then envisioning where they want the country to be in four years and beyond.
Based on our informed opinion, who can best solve our problems in ways that benefit the greatest number of citizens?
Merely complaining about the issues and the candidates is useless. Eligible voters who choose not to vote have no legitimate place in political discourse. I read somewhere that "bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."