Goldfarb Center Director Dan Shea Offers a Few Thoughts on Election Day

Let’s Vote!

 

As simple and as common as these words are, one would be hard-pressed to bundle four other words to say as much. Voting — the simple act of raising a hand, checking a box, pushing a lever, hitting a button, or touching a video screen — carries profound implications for citizens, government, and society. It says that each person matters, that everyone is important.

Voting denotes equality, the right to express preferences and to direct the course of policy. Characteristics that too often shape one’s standing in society, such as race, gender, affluence, education, and social connections, are invisible in the voting booth. Today, Election Day, the powerful CEO must stand in line with the factory worker, the teacher, the nurse, and the farmer. Everyone has a seat at the table of what H.G. Wells dubbed our “democratic feast.”

One might argue about the frequency of elections, the requirements for voting (such as age and residency), and a host of election mechanisms like the role of big money, but few would suggest that a system can be democratic if it denies its citizens the right to vote. It’s no surprise that disenfranchised groups throughout much of our nation’s history, such as women and African-Americans, set their sights on voting as a requisite of equality and liberty. “Suffrage,” noted Susan B. Anthony, “is the pivotal right.”

Wide segments of the population often scorn the outcome of a particular election; many will have a bitter taste in their mouth after the 2016 contest. But we do not challenge the necessity of elections, as these events are the footings of the legitimacy. The Chinese philosopher Confucius was once asked about the forces that promote stability in a government. “People must have sufficient food to eat,” he replied. “There must be a sufficient army, and there must be confidence of the people in the ruler.” But if a system were forced to give up one of these? “I would go without the army first.” And next? “I would do without sufficient food. A nation cannot exist without confidence in its ruler.”

For Americans, elections are the perfect mechanisms to merge three core elements of what we sometimes call the American Creed. Egalitarianism holds that all people are created equal and have a right to participate in the conduct of government. Populism maintains that average folks have wisdom (and conversely, that there is much to fear about elites). And majority will is the idea that just outcomes can be reached through a simple tabulation of preferences.

It is not surprising, then, that we use elections to fill many government positions. We might just be the most election-crazed nation in the world, boasting roughly 500,000 elected posts. Not only do we rely heavily on elections to fill government positions, the frequency of these events far outpaces those found in most other nations.

One could reasonably argue that other mechanisms, such as group mobilization or the careful use of public opinion, might be a better way of directing the course of government. In some ways, polling might be more democratic than elections. But these options would not get very far in America. We believe that elections are the fuel of a democracy.

James Madison hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the best way to create an “immediate dependency on, and intimate sympathy with, the people” is to hold frequent elections.

Today is Election Day. We celebrate our opportunity to stand in line, to raise our voice, to be heard. We call to mind the women and men who have struggled to advance this fundamental right. The outcome might not break our way this time, but know that the next opportunity is around the corner. Candidates come and go, but the voice of the people endures.


#ColbyVotes

Use the hashtag #ColbyVotes to follow Election Day activities on campus, including the daylong Election Day Extravaganza in Pulver Pavilion, sponsored by the Goldfarb Center with support from Campus Life and SGA. We’ll provide busing to the polls, live music, media coverage on big screens, giveaways, a photo booth, and loads of free food.


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