Voting time is here again. Dutifully, many of us will go to the polls and cast our ballots … and it may not matter. All my adult life, I have made the case that voting is an essential activity for any engaged citizen. I fervently argue that voting should never, ever be ignored in that it carries both the weights of historical respect and contemporary responsibility.
For example, I have been highly critical of the black population in Ferguson, Missouri, complaining that they have no voice in local government. Even though the city is 67 percent black, they only had a 6 percent turnout in the city’s last municipal elections in 2013. Their defenders posit that something is broken in Ferguson’s process (and candidates) in that only 17 percent of whites voted. This may be the case, but that is still almost triple the black turnout. The bottom line for me is that you can’t refuse to participate and then complain you aren’t represented.
On the macro level, I continue to plead that people (especially citizens of color, the impoverished and women) never forget the history of the franchise in America. At the country’s founding, only property-holding white males could vote. No blacks could submit a ballot until the 15th Amendment was pushed through in 1870, “technically” allowing black men to vote. Women of all colors were forced to the electoral sidelines until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. So, in a weird historical twist, there were 50 years in which black men could vote and white women couldn’t. Go figure. Of course, there was pushback. There always is.
By the turn of the 20th century, most blacks in the South were effectively disenfranchised by the use of grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes, segregated primaries, intimidation or outright violence. The de facto and de jure effects of these efforts have been profound and far-reaching. Supposedly, the 19th-century Old South legal obstacles ended when Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia were the last states to have their poll taxes eradicated … in 1966!
The American political landscape has produced a host of giants: Abraham Lincoln, Hiram Revels, Blanche Bruce, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Shirley Chisholm, Edward Brooke and Carol Moseley Braun, to name only a few. These were people worthy of interest (whether you agreed with them or not) and votes. Today, we are left with a confused (and confusing) lot. It is easy to understand why we increasingly wonder if we should vote and whom or what we are voting for.
Disturbingly, we could be facing a much deeper problem than candidate mediocrity. Maybe the incorrigible, intellectual rascal Timothy Leary was right when he wrote many years ago, “Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos. It has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations — informing, forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself, you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness; chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.”
Alan Moore’s anti-hero Rorschach paints an even darker picture in the opening of the classic “Watchmen.” He proclaims, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ … And I will look down and whisper, ‘No.’” Maybe the politicians aren’t looking down and saying no. Maybe they mean well and just don’t know what the hell is going on and have no real idea about how to fix anything.
Then again, maybe the majority of politicians are hustlers and exploiters. Maybe they know exactly what they are doing and have no interest in helping anyone other than themselves. Maybe Rorschach is right — maybe they are “vermin.” But, barring revolution and a complete systemic overhaul, they are all we’ve got.
So, I’ll go out and vote again next month. I’ll vote because I understand history. I’ll vote because it’s one of the best ways to express ourselves in our democratic society. But, maybe Leary and Rorschach are right and this is all chaos. I really don’t know anymore. But I still say vote … even though it may not matter.