Constitution Day and the Right to Vote

p>Every year, on the Fourth of July, we celebrate our Declaration of Independence (which in fact was signed on July 2, 1776). If you look at that document as a whole, what it emphasizes is what our Founders did not want to be—subjects of King George, whose rights could be taken away at a whim by a monarch and parliament; colonists who had no say in what taxes could be imposed on them.

By contrast, our Constitution, signed on September 17, 1789, 221 years ago today, describes what the best minds in our young country thought we should be. A government of checks and balances, with power at the state and federal levels. And at the federal level, power balanced among the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. Most importantly, it describes the architecture of a government that is created and changed by elections.

While the original constitution is a short document (certainly by present-day government standards) consisting of a mere 4 pages, the fact that it references the words “election,” “elector,” and “vote” 74 times is one simplistic indicator of how the right to vote was considered to be an important and fundamental right.

The right to vote. If you are anything like the average American when it comes to voting—and I in no way mean to imply that you are in any other way average—you seldom think much about your right to vote. Growing up you probably thought more about your right to drive and perhaps even your right to drink—legally that is.

Yet the right to vote in this country has been a history of one hard fought by those of race, color and previous servitude in the late 1860's resulting in the 15th amendment to the Constitution, by women leading up to the 19th amendment in 1920, by those delinquent in the payment of taxes in 1964 and the 24th amendment, and, finally, in 1971 and the 26th amendment giving citizens of the United States who are 18 or older the right to cast their vote for whomsoever they might chose.

In light of this history of the right to vote, it seems natural to raise the question: what has become of that right that we now so typically take it for granted and frequently fail to utilize?

It is an indisputable fact that since the 1960's voter turnout has steadily declined in the United States. The reasons given for this are numerous—too little free time, the increase usage of TV and other electronic devices, and the all-time favorite—”my vote won't make any difference”.

Several years ago, in 2000, I began my run for Atherton Town Council as a consequence of a request for public records I had casually made. The Town Manager at the time denied my request because he knew why I wanted the documents—an issue concerning possible wrongdoing in the building department. Having piqued my ire, I made an omnibus California Public Records request for every conceivable public document I could imagine, waited my 10 days and was allowed access to the Town's records. I spent the next 3 months in the Town's conference room reviewing documents only to find many anomalies and embarrassing facts. The findings became something of a local news sensation.

Consequently I was asked to run for Town Council and attempt to “make a difference”—to “clean things up”. My response then, as it is now, was that I am not a politician. The word is somewhat contrary to my very being.

But I was repeatedly encouraged to run. At that time 2 of the 3 seats up for reelection were held by people who had been in office for 20 and 22 years—since the President Carter days. No one had ever unseated them. After announcing my candidacy they decided not to run again. The third councilmember was reelected and I subsequently DID win the election for one of the other two seats—by a couple handfuls of votes. The interesting fact is that I could not successfully convince my own son to vote—as an 18 year old teenager he thought it did not really matter to the outcome. And while it turned out he was right—the race was so close that he might well have been wrong.

Fortunately the 2 subsequent elections I have had to endure were won by very comfortable margins and my son even voted in them.

Voter turnout in this country is typically a disappointing 54%, and 10-15% lower in non-presidential election years. According to the statistics, it does not take much to effect the vote—bad weather, good summer weather, whether the race looks close as it did in 2004 between Bush and Kerry, negative campaigning and character attacks, the length of the ballot, the length of the line at the polls, the day of the week. Some have even theorized that one's genetic makeup may be relevant. While the most important socioeconomic factors appear to be education followed not so closely by income, the demographic constants are that the youth of the country utilize their right to vote far less than seniors, and that married people vote more frequently than the unmarried.

Last year my husband and I had an opportunity to travel to 3 countries which gave us a very different perspective on the right to vote. The first was South Africa where thousands and thousands of immigrants from other African countries live in squalor without plumbing, electricity, sufficient food or work. It was a sobering sight to see the shanties in which they lived, stretching for 10, 20 miles next to most of the main roads and even within the town known as their equivalent to our Napa Valley. We went into one of these developments and met with a woman who had established a local food kitchen and a shelter for children who had been abandoned by their parents or were children of parents who had died of AIDS. As she explained to us the political dilemma, we watched as people lined up with their tin plates for the “gruel” that constituted their one meal of the day—if they were lucky enough to get it—and continued to watch as it ran out and people were turned away—hungry but unlikely to be satisfied until, perhaps, tomorrow. As for the politics she told us of the horrors of the politics of the countries from which these people had fled, of the fact that they were disenfranchised here in South Africa and though their President made promises, they frequently went unfulfilled because they had no political leverage—they had no voice, no vote.

In mid year we visited Ukraine and it so happened that in Yalta we met a cabdriver who had been a bodyguard for the last head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. We asked about the upcoming Presidential election and the likelihood of the outcome. He told us of Russia's political influence and the purchasing of votes amongst a populace which frequently had no living wage. It became evident that one's immediate needs overruled one's better sense of judgment and long-term opportunities. Here income was clearly relevant to the way one voted. It was a matter of existence rather than political issues although one clearly affected the other.

Lastly, in January, we went to Burma. Here we viewed a country of magnificent geography and wonderfully kind and friendly people living in primitive conditions tyrannized by one of the largest standing armies in the world. It is a country which, following a staged military coup on September 18, 1988, is ruled by a 21 member group of military commanders known as the State Law and Order Restoration council (SLORC). In 1990 in an attempt to appease the ensuing outrage, SLORC announced that “free and fair multi-party elections “were to be held in the spring. Instead, the elections were a sham, and rather than transferring power to the elected representatives as promised, SLORC chose a variety of methods to silence them, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest since July 1989.

Upon entering Burma—Myanmar as it is referred to by the present government—we witnessed very young girls dressed in their finest clothes and boys in robes on donkeys in a procession to the monastery to become monks and nuns. Our guide explained that this was done at a very early age as a way to ensure that they would be fed and clothed when their parents could not otherwise provide.

On our way to visit the previous British summer capital, now a beautiful colonial village, we passed a rather run- down school known as the best private school in Mandalay and were told it might have as many as 2 computers. Further on as we headed to the peak of the mountain which would take us to the colonial village we passed the government's computer center which apparently controlled all aspects of the government—a huge and incredible modern day complex in the middle of jungle.

There were other disconcerting sights as well—females who had become drug “mules” in an effort to feed their families, now sentenced to minimum 5 year prison terms at hard labor (while drug lords reportedly received protection) looking out from the local prison, children wandering in mounds of garbage for food, women pounding rock against rock into a road bed on their knees in the heat for approximately 16 cents per day.

Here was a country in which democracy had not been allowed to take its path and for all its quiet and beauty it seemed sad and ready to explode. One day as I looked down upon the towns from a monastery I thought of all the peoples' votes that had been ignored and the possibility that bloodshed would be the horrific substitute in order for people to have a voice.

We are so very fortunate in this country not to have to sell our votes to eat or provide for our families, not to have to fight to express our views—however faint we may feel our voice might be at times, not to have to protest or demonstrate or otherwise convince our leaders that we are worthy to vote. We have that right and we have an unimpeded capability to use it. For that, we can today, Constitution Day, say words in support of the document assuring us that right. Even better, in the future we can regularly demonstrate our commitment to the Constitution and our so-very-special and oft-neglected rights, by voting.

While we may not really appreciate it, it is this right which empowers us all.

Kathy McKeithen
September 17, 2010