Unless you have never had, or lost, the right to vote you may never know how valuable a vote can be. As much of America has the chance today to head to the polls again, for midterm Congressional elections, the priceless nature of the democratic right to vote is in my thoughts. I lost my voting rights when I left the UK over 20 years ago to come to work in the US, not immediately, but eventually. Unless I take out some sort of US citizenry, I wont have any chances to vote in the US. It’s more galling because I am much interested in public policy. But, without having the chance to affect who gets to be an elected official, I sometimes wonder if that interest is more a hobby than anything else.
When I listen to debate about getting out the vote and how certain groups will feel disinclined to vote, or worse still, how some groups are being encouraged to not vote, I think of savagery. So many generations have worked and died to get the right for most people to be part of local and national electorates that it is almost a duty in their honour to go and cast a vote–even to spoil the ballot paper. Of course, the democratic right extends too to staying away from voting places and to protest by not voting. If that is an active, rather than a passive, choice, I think I would have to respect the exercising of the right. But, I personally would prefer to see people register and then be part of the process.
Politicians and their strategists know the importance of voter turnout, and that’s why they often try to get out their supporters and find ways to block their opponents’ supporters. We are lucky to live in countries where that is done in ways that may be subtle, as opposed to having our houses torched, or ourselves and our families molested and threatened. In the Caribbean, for instance, elections this close to a major holiday would be associated with a few enticements for would-be voters. A fridge? A hamper of food? A turkey? Shopping vouchers?
Opposition in the US is rarely in the form of personal threats, or blatantly partisan demonstrations, between opposed sides, say in the workplace or in the neighbourhoods where we live. But, having that kind of civilized system is also in danger of passing if the strident voices of opposition are allowed to turn into physical threats. I’ve seen more of that appearing over the past months in the US, and it worries me, not least because once in takes hold it’s hard to turn back. I cannot see American constituencies becoming like Jamaica’s political garrisons, but they should be a warning of where things can go. One does not need to remember far back to the events during the last presidential elections in Kenya. We can look at other examples of how voting processes get broken and the horrific consequences.
Civil participation in decision-making should be more than casting a ballot. But, if it has to be limited then let it be that at least you vote when you can. If you don’t, then do not come crying afterwards about how the world has turned out.