There was a time when elections fascinated me. In the third grade, I thought Adlai Stevenson should win in his second candidacy because President Eisenhower had already had a turn. As a kid, I also watched the conventions just to record delegate votes on the chart in the TV Guide.
The mere idea of Election Day made my patriotic juices flow, especially with people hustling to the polls where flags were flying. And I excitedly cast my first presidential ballot in 1972 – when the voting age was 21.
An election is by definition a race, a contest between opponents; and I eventually noticed the resulting negative aspects of campaigns. In junior high I realized John Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue, and chilling ads about nuclear war from Barry Goldwater’s campaign scared me in high school – not really so long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can any of us forget five long weeks of hanging chads and Supreme Court rulings before the Bush-Gore election finally concluded?
Oh, I can still be inspired by what it means for people to gain the right to choose their leaders. Images of Iraqi fingers stained purple during that country’s first free election in 2005 are indelibly imprinted on my mind. But I also tearfully recall a man’s description of his grandfather’s long-awaited first voting experience somewhere in the Deep South; the elderly gentleman rose early on Election Day, dressed in his best suit, and walked to his polling place several miles away – only to be turned away.
Of late, however, like many others, I am finding that my optimism and sense of security about the political process and the red-white-and-blue and getting-out-the-vote have dimmed, replaced even by occasional feelings of dread. We simply cannot, however, allow pessimism to interfere with our responsibility as citizens.
I believe such conflicted feelings stem from a certain complacent attitude to which we became accustomed in years gone by. Busy lives and a decent standard of living lulled us into thinking our responsibility as citizens was pretty much just to show up on Election Day. In effect, we partially ceded our privileges and duties as Americans to the politicians – as long as nothing bothered us too much.
The result of our national complacency is the deep divide we are now experiencing. It is essential that we reassess our perspective and increase our participation in the governing of this country. And the best way to begin is to vote.
For all that has been written and uttered and analyzed about the 2016 election, just over half of all eligible voters exercised their primary democratic privilege/right/responsibility. In fact, the United States has long been way down the list of voter turnout in developed countries of the world, a list topped by Belgium, Denmark, and Australia where over 80% of those eligible regularly participate.
In addition, we need to work harder to cast educated votes. Personally, I am unlikely to be swayed by the multitude of negative, misleading political ads and intrusive robocalls to which we have been subjected in recent years – although they can convince me to vote against the candidates responsible for them. With my remote control’s worn-out mute button as evidence, I refuse to listen to candidates sling mud at their opponents. Office-seekers have the responsibility to explain their own beliefs and plans directly to the American people during whatever TV time they buy and during meaningful, face-to-face debates devoid of platitudes.
We cannot allow ourselves to make voting decisions based on questionable social media posts, oversimplified campaign rhetoric, or political analysis by the talking heads of any one news outlet. It is incumbent upon us to expend real effort to do the thinking and reading it requires to adequately inform ourselves.
We must also understand it is virtually impossible for any one person to completely agree with our views on every issue facing us today. There is no accurate label to describe the many of us who hold a mixture of conservative, moderate, and liberal views. My personal requirement for elected officials is that they possess the wisdom and the willingness to represent their principles while searching for common ground with others who hold differing views. It is called bipartisanship, currently in very short supply.
Finally, we must elect individuals who demonstrate leadership recognizing that every citizen in this country is equal to every other citizen – including themselves. All elected members of all government branches must abide by the exact same laws as the citizens who put them in office.
Our country is currently in danger of fitting the situation described in Mark 3:25 – And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. Simply: United we stand, divided we fall.
However, the lack of union and the possibility of fall cannot be blamed solely on those occupying executive, legislative, and judicial offices at any level. After all, we sent them there. As citizens of a sprawling country with all manner of viewpoints from all manner of ancestries, ethnicities, religions, genders, needs, and desires, we must expect honest give-and-take in addition to respect for our fellow citizens as we continue working toward a more perfect Union to secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves, our offspring, and beyond. After all, we are the United States of America.
We cannot afford to give up. Let’s start by voting next week.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.