Monday, May 11, 2015

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

That was Benjamin Franklin's reported response to a woman who asked him, at the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, whether we had a Republic or a Monarchy.  His point was that republics don't just wamble along by themselves - they require constant tending from the citizens to keep them going in the proper direction.

And yet we've quit voting.  We complain constantly (I do, anyway) that there's too much money in politics, and the rich people are buying our government - but we don't vote.  Let's look at my state, California, and the 2014 election.  OK, it's a midterm, nobody turns out for midterms.  Except me.

Every source I look at has slightly different numbers for the 2014 general election, probably depending on when they counted.  So I'm using broadly rounded numbers.

For the 2014 election, California had a population of roughly 38 million.

Of that 38 million, about 63% were eligible to vote, which means over 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen, and not a convicted felon.  63% of 38 million is about 24 million. These numbers come from the U.S. Elections Project's document,  2014 November General Election Turnout Rates

Of the 24 million eligible voters, 73% bothered to register to vote.  We're now down to roughly 18 million people who are actually able to cast a ballot, out of a total 38 million.  That isn't even half of the total population.  Of those 18 million registered voters, 42% bothered to fill out a ballot and turn it in.  That's about 7.5 million people.

In other words,  20% of California's population cast the votes that determined who would be elected and what measures would pass or fail.  The other 80% didn't show up.

There's a lot of discussion out there about the prevalence of dark money in our elections (bad, I agree), and rich people like the Koch brothers trying to buy the government.  But to get elected, you still have to get over 50% of the vote for your particular office; and that means that 7.5 million Californians decided on all the offices and propositions up for election in 2014.  I voted.  Are you happy with the way I voted?  If not, why didn't you vote?

Oh, say some, my vote doesn't matter.  There were 3 California contests in the 2014 midterm that were too close to call, Assembly Districts 16, 17 and 39; at least 2 of those vote counts went on for weeks.  One guy was so convinced he'd won that he went to Washington, D.C. for new representative orientation; while he was gone, the count went the other way and his opponent was elected.  If you voted for one of those candidates, your vote counted, all right.  And if you were a Republican voter in Florida, in the 2000 Presidential election, your vote may have changed the course of history. Think what the first decade of the 21st century might have been like if Al Gore had won. I guarantee, Al Gore would never have invaded Iraq.

I don't know if we've lost our Republic yet.  But we're on the verge of walking away from it, because turning out to vote every couple of years is too much trouble.  If you don't vote because you're working 3 minimum wage jobs and you can't get to the polls, you have my sympathy; but you can sign up for a mail-order ballot and vote that way.  If you don't vote because you don't understand the issues and can't be bothered to read what the candidates say they're up to, you don't have my sympathy. Government "of the people and by the people" means it's our responsibility to read up on these things, to vote as best we understand.

I plan to keep voting as long as I can fill in a ballot; I haven't missed an election since I first voted in 1968.  Voting is my voice in our government, and I want my voice heard, however faintly.  Your vote is your voice.  Use it.

1 comment:

  1. There is no question that as a matter of principle, you're absolutely right.

    We all owe a duty of participation--if not for the effect, at least for the example it sets.

    There are certain very rare instances in which individual vote counts do matter, and in those instances--such as the Florida case you mention--voting is crucial; though I suspect that the outcome there was fraudulently mishandled, that Gore actually won the election, so you could say, with justice, that the votes didn't matter--corruption won, just as Kennedy did in 1960. I loved Kennedy, and think him one of our best Presidents, but the plain fact is that Nixon won that election, and yet the people's choice was denied.

    On perhaps on a more sour note, pollsters and statisticians will tell you that individual votes no longer matter, and they can prove it. In small elections, say, in little New England communities, where the difference in an election can amount to less than a 100 votes, your vote really does count, and there's real competition. But in the modern world, where there are millions of voters, individual votes count for very little, some would even claim they have virtually no effect. The outcomes are virtually pre-ordained.

    A few years ago, I discovered that the jury lists are derived from the voter turn-outs. It had gotten so bad here in Contra Costa County, that I routinely received a jury summons every month. I was spending a week or two each quarter over in Martinez trying to fend off activist judges determined to exploit my time for their convenience. So I gave up voting, and they eventually left me alone. I know this is unethical, even stupid. But I didn't like being threatened with bench warrants, and being forced to commute 30 miles on my own dime, to donate days of service to try some hapless jokers on probation violations, sitting with 275 other suckers while the competing attorneys played out their little drama of "let's dismiss the whole damn jury pool."

    I really like your commitment to democracy. In a theoretical sense, there is no argument. In the real world, we know that voting blocs are determined by districting and re-districting, and that the odds are that in any precinct, the outcome is well-nigh inevitable. In most cases, you're either voting to increase a landslide, or casting a futile gesture into the wind.