About a week ago, Maryland held its gubernatorial primary election. Kathi and I had voted early because we worked as judges for the board of elections that day. We take voting seriously, even though Maryland is a blue state and the county we live in is especially blue. However, prior to our current governor, Maryland had a Republican in office (the first since Spiro Agnew), so it is still possible for Maryland to go in either direction.
It was disheartening then, to say the least, to witness the extremely low voter turnout – 22% of eligible voters showed up to cast their ballots. I was at our voting location from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm and was able to read most of a more than 400 page book on the Civil War. According to the Washington Post, Maryland had a 40% turnout for its primary in 1994 (still incredibly low) but the numbers have been declining since. And it’s not just Maryland. California had less than 24% turnout on June 3rd; in March, Texas had less than 10% Republicans and 4% Democrats show up; and fewer than 1 in 6 registered voters went to the polls in Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina (Washington Post, June 25).
Granted, it’s not a Presidential election year, and it’s only a primary, not the general election. But 22% – seriously? No one is certain what the reasons are, but most experts cite voter ennui, a complete lack of engagement. Perhaps they’ve had their fill of national partisan politics. Increasingly we see more finger pointing and less substantial discussion about the issues, and gridlock everywhere. The Republican Party suffers internally from determining whether they’re just plain conservative or extremely conservative. And Democrats have their own issues with those who want to see the party move away from the center and more to the left.
The other night, Kathi and I watched a documentary about the 50th anniversary of the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Their killers: members of the Ku Klux Klan, the county sheriff’s office, and the local police department. Their crime: attempting to register African Americans to vote.
I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but the documentary reminds us that people have died for our right to vote. For more than 200 years, whether it was our founding fathers who fought for representation, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, people fought, suffered physical and mental distress, and died for something we don’t even care about, but should.
Today, July 4th, immigrants from all over the world will become citizens of the United States, some taking their oath in historic locations such as Williamsburg, Virginia, Monticello, Mount Vernon, even our National Parks, while others will take it in an innocuous auditorium in Anywhere USA. Most of these immigrants have waited years for this moment. Many come from countries where they have no rights at all and even face death for speaking out. But in America they will have a voice in the government who serves them.
So the next time there’s an election, be sure and vote. Those that have fought and died before you will thank you.