Vote or Die (Not Really)

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Vote or Die was the absurd message of Sean P. Diddy Combes and other inexplicable luminaries in the pop music industry back in 2006. It was so ridiculous that its hyperbolic extravagance became comedic fodder for the Daily Show, South Park, and others. It was, in its inelegant and gauche way, intended to shock the youth vote out of its presumed apathy and hurry youngsters to the polls where they could vote their hearts. However convoluted the message was made by the media, the universities, and a culture obsessed with celebrities, the adults in children’s lives should be careful to provide the young with lessons that ready them for their responsibilities rather than reinforcing their already precious notions of disenfranchisement and jadedness.

There are at least two issues relevant in such an endeavor. First, whether a society should act in haste to have young people vote; and second, whether something more edifying ought to happen in a person’s life to prepare him to vote rather than simply rolling over a preset number of days on a calendar. A further distinction should be made between the descriptive (what is done) and the normative (what ought to be done).

A report issued by the US Census Bureau in April 2014 examined the voting behavior of young adults between 1964 and 2012. Despite all of the petitions and panegyrics to induce the young to vote, political involvement among the young continues to diminish. In 1964, 50.9% of those who were eligible to vote between the ages of 18 and 24 years old actually did so. This would have been something of an important year given that the presidential contest was between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. In the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the same group of voters amounted to only 38% despite America being repeatedly told that this was the age of the youth vote. The age of the person most likely to vote in this country is 65 or older. Among this demographic, 72% voted in 2012. On average in 2012, about 62% of the eligible population actually voted and voting is down among all age groups.

That is, of course, the descriptive situation. Interestingly, it is a situation that took a constitutional amendment to bring about, and is one of the few in which the amendment process was used to directly overturn a US Supreme Court decision. The amendment is the 26th and the Supreme Court decision is Oregon v. Mitchell (1970). The case came about because Congress had voted to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by significantly diminishing the minimum age to vote among other things. They believed that the authority to do so had been granted to them in the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870, which stated that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Age, presumably, is not a condition of servitude, but the Court heard the case as they are wont to do, and in a narrow majority, the Court ruled that Congress did not have the authority to regulate state elections, but that they did possess such power with regard to federal elections. Four of the justices carrying the nationalist cause believed that Congress had complete power to determine the voting age in any election, whereas four justices carrying the federalist cause believed that Congress could do so only in federal elections. Justice Hugo Black cast the deciding vote for a 5-4 majority. Congress, worried about a limit to its power, and moved quickly to pursue what had first been proposed by President Eisenhower in his 1954 State of the Union address. Lawmakers were especially concerned by 1970 about protests during the Vietnam conflict into which men too young to vote were nevertheless being drafted. Thus, the 26th Amendment was proposed and ratified within just seven months and earns the distinction for fastest approval of a constitutional amendment. It states that, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

As is often the case in such matters, it is the dissenting opinions of the Court that prove most illuminating about the deeper questions raised. In this case, justices were concerned with not only how old an individual had to be to vote, but whether states were justified in limiting voting to those who were literate. Such ‘tests’ had been abused by some states in an effort to limit black citizen’s access to the polls, and so this issue is far more directly related to the 15th Amendment than was age. At base was a question about who should decide who could enfranchise voters, and here one comes to the normative of the question rather than a straightforward question about enumerated and reserved powers.

Aristotle opens Book VIII of his Politics with the statement that, “No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution.” Aristotle concludes that same paragraph by noting that, “…always the better the character, the better the government.” We should be conscious of the character we are cultivating so that the next generation does not vote on the politics of personality, but the recognition that their choices might reduce another’s. It is the last genuine way in which we can check the power of those who represent us, and if we forfeit our vote because we think it makes no difference, it will indeed make no difference. It is one thing to talk of our disappointment in political affairs, and indeed in one recent poll, 58% of Americans believe that “the country is headed to hell in a hand-basket.” It is another thing entirely to validate these feelings for those who have few practical experiences but who will soon vote. Our disappointment should not become their despondency. All the usual things that are said of this remain true: people die elsewhere in efforts to obtain those rights casually left derelict when civic life in America imposes so few duties and makes the process of voting so simple with mail-in ballots, free and objective ballot information booklets, and a plethora of polling stations.

A local election, in particular, gives us some idea of what was intended by the Founders. Originally, they had intended for one representative for every 30,000 inhabitants, but that number at the federal level has swelled to more than 700,000 on average. The larger the number of people being represented, the fewer the number of things about which they will agree, and the fewer the number of things that should be within that representative’s power to decide. The bulk of the power should lie where the Constitution directed for it to: with the states who can subdivide such responsibilities among their counties, cities, and districts. This brings up the long-neglected Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The problem is that the young people of today know almost nothing of local politics. They know almost nothing about what an attorney general does, or the Secretary of State, or a regent, a county commissioner, a coroner, treasurer, assessor, sheriff, surveyor, or coroner. They do not know what is at stake in retaining judges and justices, nor do they know the difference between an amendment and a proposition, but only this one thing: they deserve to vote. Voting, they know, is not predicated upon any minimum of life experience, contribution, stake holding, knowledge of the issues, or even literacy, but upon the attainment of a particular age only, and they have been confirmed in this by the Court and a Congress eager, though not particularly successful, in courting their votes. As it would be impractical to change this situation, one must work to better educate the young as to their fast-approaching responsibilities. As the anonymous author Junius wrote in 1771, “The least considerable man among us has an interest equal to the proudest nobleman, in the laws and constitution of his country, and is equally called upon to make a generous contribution in support of them – whether it be the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, or the hand to execute.” We each have our part to play; what is wanted is that we should each play out that part intelligently.

Many of these young people, some of whom are so historically benighted, are unaware that they live in a republic rather than a democracy because this lie has been so virulent and so successful since democracy rings with an emotional satisfaction that republic does not. It was James Madison who wrote that it would be landholders who “would be the safest depositories of republican liberty. In future times the great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation, in which case the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands; or, which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side.” Those landholders, what we today might call stakeholders, were expected to act with a degree of disinterestedness that we today find quaint. Under universal suffrage and enfranchisement without qualification, one need not contribute anything in order to have a say in determining what should be done with another’s contributions. We have most fully embodied Madison’s notion of faction as he laid it out in Federalist No. 10. “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens,” wrote Madison, “whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (emphasis added). There is no longer even the pretense or faintest acknowledgement that how one votes may adversely affect one’s fellows – only that voting is a means of making the world better suit one’s preferences.

If we have any power over the minds of our students and children, it should not be to direct them to vote one way or another, but to impress upon them the importance of their voting intelligently as a civic service, and not with this faction or that, but to have a thorough understanding of their Constitution, to know the history of this country as well as that history which goes back much further; to understand a modicum of political philosophy, to consider the lives of others and the dangers of faction, to possess a skeptical view of politicians so that service rather than shallow celebrity is what binds them to their constituents, and to know and impose limits on those elected to positions of power since power will always be abused. It is not, then, a question of to vote or die, but how to vote so that the republic not only does not perish, but flourishes in passing from one generation to the next. Statewide Election Day is Tuesday, November 4th.

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