Guest Viewpoint: Voting shows ability to self-govern

Editor’s Note: Joe Postell, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, shared his thoughts about why Coloradans should vote in next week’s mid-term elections. Election Day is Nov. 4 and all ballots must be submitted by mail or dropped off at El Paso County clerk offices. A list of drop off locations in El Paso County can be found here.

Election Day is Nov. 4, 2014
Election Day is Nov. 4, 2014

Voting shows ability to self-govern

Joe Postell
Joe Postell

Abraham Lincoln argued that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say that this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”This leading principle of government by consent depends on we the voters taking time to exercise our fundamental right of suffrage. When fewer voters turn out to make their voice heard we are left with a government which lacks the consent of many of its citizens. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to become informed and vote, so that important political decisions are not made without our input.

The historical decline in voter turnout points to a serious problem in our current political system. Turnout in the late 1800s, when grassroots party organizations were powerful and helped mobilize and link voters to their government, rose to unprecedented levels. Since the beginning of the 1900s, however, citizens have become increasingly disengaged from their own government. Over one-third of voters now identify as independents, and citizens increasingly prefer to sit on the sidelines on election day rather than exercise a right that generations spilled blood to preserve.

In addition, today’s campaigns themselves seem dedicated to persuading people to sit on the sidelines, condemning their opponents rather than offering a positive reason to go to the polls. If they can’t give you a reason to vote for them, better to convince you not to vote at all.

The effects of these developments are significant and measurable. From 1860 to 1900 voter turnout never dropped below 70 percent during a presidential election. Today, voter turnout in presidential elections hovers between 55 percent and 60 percent. The decline is even more pronounced in midterm congressional elections, where fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters have elected members to the House and Senate in every midterm election since 1970.

There is something troubling about a national Congress in which policies are made by a bare majority of 40 percent of the eligible voters. The effects are everywhere: as only the most mobilized and vocal citizens participate in the political process, the ability of our government to come up with meaningful compromise withers. America’s first century was filled with many profoundly important compromises (some good, some bad). How many great compromises have our representatives forged lately? Incumbency has been on the rise for generations. Congress’s approval is around 13 or 14 percent, yet voters routinely grant 90 percent or more of incumbents another term. The only way we can solve the pressing problems we face as a society is for the voters to become informed and engaged; we can change things for the better if we accept the responsibility for doing so.

The great thing about democracy is that we get the government we deserve. We are the solution to these trends. As Samuel Adams wrote in 1781 in the Boston Gazette: “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual – or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society.”

Without our participation in the political process, there is an increased risk that our government fails to consider our preferences and follow the public’s interest. Our founders called America an experiment in self-government. When we vote we vindicate their confidence in our ability to govern ourselves. Let us all keep this responsibility in mind as Election Day approaches.

— Joe Postell, Department of Political Science

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