On Voting

by Derrick G. Jeter

Cynic Ambrose Bierce wrote that voting was “the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” [1] There is much truth in Bierce’s definition. Many have made a fool of themselves by voting for many a fool, and wrecking the country in the process. But cynicism is not healthy for our republic, for voting is the native air of our representative government.
Many of our fellow citizens, however, cannot get over their cynicism. Not only because of the persistent feeling that our choices are always between the lesser of two evils—or more likely between dumb and dumber—but because they doubt their vote counts for much. This may be true to some extent if the election isn’t close, but often elections are won or lost on a few votes. Here a few examples to illustrate:
  • The 1800 presidential election between incumbent John Adams and vice president Thomas Jefferson ended in an Electoral College tie, as did the 1824 contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, requiring the House of Representatives to cast the deciding vote. John Adams and Andrew Jackson lost.
  • The 1839 Massachusetts gubernatorial election was won by Marcus Morton by a margin of two votes.
  • In the 1948 Texas senatorial Democratic primary runoff between Lyndon B. Johnson and Coke Stevenson, the vote went to Johnson by a mere eighty-seven votes.
  • The close 1960 presidential election would have broken for vice president Richard M. Nixon if one vote per congressional district in only twelve states hadn’t gone to John F. Kennedy.
  • In New Hampshire the 1974 U.S. Senate race between John A. Durkin and Louis Wyman was determined by two votes. Durkin won.
  • In 1984, the 18th congressional district race of Indiana went to Frank McCoskey by four votes.
  • George W. Bush was able to garner enough Electoral College votes during the 2000 presidential election when Florida voters gave him 537 more votes than his competitor Al Gore.
  • In Washington the 2004 gubernatorial race turned on 133 votes when Christine Gregoire edged out Dino Rossi.
  • And in 2008, the Minnesota U.S. Senate seat went to Al Fraken instead of Norm Coleman when the ballots were recounted. Franken won by 312 votes.
These examples illustrate the practical side of voting and give some support for the importance of exercising the franchise. But they don’t touch the heart and hearthstone of why we should vote. Voting is a right and privilege . . . and a sacred trust, or so thought Noah Webster.
When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers, just men who will rule in the fear of God. The preservation of a republican government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their duty, and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good, so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of citizens will be violated or disregarded. If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the divine commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the laws. [2]
If we want better government then we must vote for better representation. So when you watch political adds and listen to stump speeches and go to the polling place, keep this ever in mind: “In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill . . . we do not ask for the handsomest physician or the most eloquent one.” [3] Politicians are practical people, they’re survivors—like roaches. Few are wise. But the choice is ours to make.
The magic of having the right to make this choice, freely, transforms voting into an act of patriotism—a sign of your devotion and dedication to the country, to your state and city. For the average citizen there are few acts of patriotism that have a direct impact on the country. We might serve in the armed forces; we might pray for our country and her leaders; we might fly our flag; we might say the Pledge of Allegiance; we might sign the National Anthem. But voting makes an immediate and tangible difference in the direction of our nation. By our votes we either affirm the leadership of our representatives, thereby affirming the direction of the country, or we “fire” our representatives and “hire” new leaders to take us in another direction.
By our vote we announce to all who would seek to represent us that “We the People” still rule in the United States of America. That’s something unlike any other nation; and that’s something not to turn a cynical nose toward . . . even if some of the people we put into office are fools.
[1] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), see “vote.”
[2] Noah Webster, as quoted in William J. Bennett, Our Sacred Honor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 396–97 (emphasis in original).
[3] Will Durant, paraphrasing Plato, as quoted in Roger Ringer, Restoring the American Dream: The Defining Voice in the Movement for Liberty (Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley and Sons, 2010), 29.