John Smart

Get out the vote

By - Oct 31st, 2010 04:00 am

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Years ago I was in Stockholm on business and having dinner with several Swedish colleagues.  The next day was their national election day — a state holiday in Sweden, and most European nations — and we were discussing that.  One man said there were few races that had caught the public imagination, and he was worried that “we might not even get a 90 percent turnout!”

Sweden typically gets an 85-95 percent turnout. I felt like crawling under the table, fearful that someone would ask what our turnout was in the United States.

It is a sad fact that, even considering the crucial issues facing the nation and the world, that less than 50 percent of eligible U.S. voters are likely to show up at the polls on Tuesday (or cast early votes).

In a very real sense, the important decisions facing us all will be made by that 50+ percent of non-participating Americans who just stay home.  Oh yes, the hardcore right and the hardcore left will get their members out, but what about that big bunch in the middle?

We’ve all heard people — sometimes even family and friends — who say things like, “Oh, I don’t believe any of them, I’m turned off, so I’m not going to bother voting,”  or “I don’t pay any attention to politics – it doesn’t matter what I think or do anyway.”

Oh, but it does matter.

I always correct people who say that voting is a “freedom” or a “right.” It’s not. It’s an obligation, a responsibility of citizenship in a free society.

To be sure, it is not surprising that so many become turned off, especially during this year’s campaign. The recent decision of the Roberts’ Supreme Court in the Citizens United vs Federal Elections Commission case has made it all too easy for corporations and certain hard to identify organizations to make contributions to political campaigns — and we’ll never know who they are.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, saying, “No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of non-profit or for-profit corporations.”

But are corporations really entitled to the benefits of individual citizenship? Is a corporation a person, and therefore subject to the rights and privileges of a citizen?

In dissent, recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”  I can’t help but agree.

Recently, I wrote about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other, more nebulous organizations, and how they’re pumping millions of anonymous dollars into campaigns across the nation, cranking out negative television and mailed advertising for primarily conservative Republican candidates for both national and state offices.

Photo byTheresa Thompson, courtesy of Flickr

I was shocked that an oddly named group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, from Alexandria,Virginia, was responsible for a nasty mailing attacking my state senator, Russ Decker. It said that Decker would “allow Wisconsin convicts out of prison early,” and featured a scary photograph of a dark-skinned male hand covering the mouth of a young, white woman. Wow, Willie Horton comes to the Northwoods.

Slimy stuff…and there’s a lot more. They are calling State Senator Julie Lassa “liar, liar, pants-on-fire” because she said that her opponent for the 7th District Congressional seat, Sean Duffy, supports Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap,” which calls for drastic cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and more, with an eye to privatizing said programs. But he did say that — I heard him myself.

The amount of negative advertising increases with every election, and the public’s disgust does too. But the unfortunate thing is that the negative advertising works. It has the effect of reinforcing a candidate’s supporters and turning off others, who may not vote at all.  What does this say about our vaunted democracy?  Is this really the direction we as a nation want to take?

So the prediction is that less than 50 percent of eligible voters will bother to vote on Tuesday. Two years ago, when we elected President Obama, we turned out 63 percent of voters, which was the highest percentage since we elected President Kennedy in 1960 — still way behind Sweden.

So, get out the vote. Call everyone you know.  Offer to drive people to the polls, or to help them to vote early as a large number of Wisconsin citizens have already done. And remember, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, my ultimate political hero, said this: “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

Categories: Commentary, Politics

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