“Democracy dies in Darkness” proclaims The Washington Post on its masthead.
“Democracy dies in silence” advocate those who believe truth alone to be insufficient without our willingness to engage one another in critical dialogue.
To those slogans, I would add another: “Democracy dies in apathy.”
Citizen participation is the lifeblood of democracy. Its heartbeat is the vote.
That should go without saying that in a system where leaders, from the local level to the national, owe their positions of leadership to the electoral process.
And yet, the vote has not always been available to the majority of citizens in this country.
When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, white male property owners were exclusively granted the right to vote.
Not until the 1828 presidential election were non-property-owning white males eligible to vote in a majority of the states. The last state to get rid of the property requirement was North Carolina in 1856.
The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 technically extended the right to vote to males 21 years of age and older who were born in the United States or became naturalized citizens. Almost immediately, Southern states implemented restrictions designed to deny this right to Blacks and other racial groups.
Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1887, making males among them eligible to vote.
The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the vote after an 80-year struggle. Due to Jim Crow restrictions, it only applied to white women.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed practices designed to keep Blacks and other minorities from voting. But it wasn’t until 1966 that the Supreme Court finally outlawed wealth-based tests for voting.
In 1961, the Twenty-Third Amendment empowered citizens of Washington, D.C.
The right to vote has been a hard-fought battle for everyone, except white, wealthy men. Without the active struggle of those who were excluded from participation, along with their allies, only a small number of American citizens would be allowed to shape the form of our government.
Without the active participation of those now eligible to vote, that will continue to be the case.
At every stage, the expansion of voting rights has been, and is being, met with attempts to undermine and diminish the impact of including more citizens in the democratic process.
Poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, felony disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and so on have all been ways to roll back hard-fought gains.
The struggle for universal voting continues. Current efforts to restore voting rights to persons who have been convicted of felonies are mixed.
Many American citizens in U.S. territories, for example, Puerto Rico and Guam, are barred from voting in presidential elections and remain unrepresented in Congress.
The recent increase in restrictive voter ID laws seeks to depress participation by minority groups.
Our ongoing, active involvement in the political process is vital to ensure the rights of citizenship are guarded and expanded.
We cannot profess to possess a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” unless all the people who have a voice use their voice to make sure that everyone has a voice.
In less than a week, we will have the opportunity to shape the direction of our country for years to come. To sit this or any election out would be to squander the right and privilege we have to shape our common life as a nation.
Social justice activists have been encouraging people to “vote like your life depended on it.” I would suggest that, as Christians and people of faith, we should vote like the life of our neighbor depends on it.
We vote, not out of our own self-interest, but based on what is good for our neighbor, particularly our neighbors on the margin. We vote to ensure their inclusion in the rights and benefits of citizenship.
But beyond voting on Nov. 3, the maintenance of a thriving, vital democracy requires that we remain actively engaged in the process of electing leaders, shaping policy, advocating for justice and making our voices heard.
The lifeblood of a democracy is citizen participation. Its heartbeat is the vote.
For the sake of the life of this nation, for the sake of your neighbors, for the cause of justice – vote!