News stories have told how Democratic (and Independent) Registration is up and Republican down–just as participation in most of the Democratic primaries and caucuses has been twice as large as participation in the GOP caucuses and primaries. Greater turnout is good for our entire democracy. We know the contrasts: in many young democracies in Africa and in former Soviet Republics (and, to a slightly lesser extent, in Latin America, too), citizens line up (that’s “queue” for British readers) for hours on end for the right to vote. In many cases throughout the world voter participation is well above 70% while in the U.S. less than 50% of eligible voters cast ballots. And, until this year, young voters were the least likely to cast ballots.
It’s time to change all that. Democracy is far from perfect–certainly not the Reign of God. Christians’ primary political loyalty is to the Reign of God and to the Church Universal. The Church has carried out its mission under numerous types of government. Democratic republics with full protection of religious liberty for all give the most benefit for the Church, but can also seduce the Church into thinking that it’s primary task is to make democracy work–whether in liberal or conservative form.
But because democracies do give space for the Church and governments with elected leaders are more susceptible to citizen accountability (including the prophetic function of the Church in speaking Truth to Power), they can be temporal vehicles for conditions of relative justice this side of the Eschaton. So, greater participation is a good thing.
So, I am carrying voter registration cards with me everywhere I go from now until October 3 (one month before the election–and the last day citizens can be registered and still vote in this election). I plan on signing up everyone I can, especially young people–because research has shown that if citizens in the U.S. vote as soon after their 18th birthday as they can, they make it a lifelong habit. The older people get before voting, the less their participation is throughout their lives–and democracy suffers.
I will also be concentrating hard on African-Americans and Latinos since they participate less than whites–to the detriment of their communities and the detriment of the common good. Part of the reason for this is a level of cynicism in these communities (and among the young of all ethnic groups) that their vote will count, or that the system is rigged against them no matter what they do. There is good basis for such fears: One need look no further than Katherine Harris, who was Florida Sec. of State in 2000 and simultaneously the head of George W. Bush’s presidential election committee in FL. She deliberately purged the voting rolls of thousands of eligible African-American citizens, claiming falsely that they were felons who had lost the right to vote. Then there are the Diebold electronic voting machines without paper trails that experiments have shown can be easily hacked to change the outcome–and without a paper trail there is no way to do a recount. In ’04, voter suppression in Ohio was accomplished by the simple means of removing voting machines from heavily Democratic districts without warning. And even though repeated studies have shown that voter fraud is miniscule, the Supreme Court has upheld Indiana’s draconian return to the old “poll tax,” requiring a high-tech voter registration I.D. that costs $35–obviously more than the very poor can afford. Other states are now rushing to put such measures on their ballots before Sept., hoping to curb participation in an election that threatens the interests of the super-rich and ultra-powerful (NOT the interests of the poor or the Middle Class!). Since African-American voter turnout is expected to be at record highs in many states in the South, we should also expect greater-than-average attempts at voter suppression, too.
But non-participation just makes these problems worse. Yes, we need more than voting for real change. Yes, people power in the streets is needed to hold elected officials accountable. Community organizing and ‘Net activism are also necessary. We need, as Thoreau said, to vote with our whole lives and not just with a ballot. But the ballot is a powerful weapon of change–or else why would the Powers work so hard to keep marginalized populations from exercising it? One of my few major disagreements with Dorothy Day’s approach to “building a new society in the shell of the old,” was her total apathy and disinterest in voting. In her (pre-Christian, pro-Marxist) youth, she marched and went to jail for the right of women to vote–but never showed any interest in casting a ballot herself.
Yes, build alternative communities of Salt and Light and Leaven. Yes, subvert the dominant order with communities of noncomformity (and conformity to the Rule of God) that resist the dominant values of racism, sexism, plutocratic materialism and the conversion of all values to market values, rape of the earth, militarism and violence. Absolutely. But none of this should be seen as in opposition to voting in elections–even though there are no perfect parties or candidates and one often has to weigh which issues and values must trump others in the election (while not surrendering work for those values in other ways).
Of course, I will also lobby for these citizens to vote for my chosen presidential (and other) candidates, but even if they register Republican and/or vote for the other candidate, the health of the democracy will be better than with non-participation. Democracy is not the Ultimate Good–that’s the Rule of God. But it is a Relative Good and working for its health is not something Christians should neglect.
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