Sunday, December 16, 2007

Voting: privilege, right, or compulsory duty?

The mayor of New Orleans has caused yet more controversy - this time not by saying something controversial or stupid, but rather by something he didn't do.

Citizens and pundits all over Louisiana are shocked, indignant, and angry because it seems that Mayor Nagin hasn't voted in the last three elections.

In fact, there is a bill in the state legislature that would require all "public officials" to vote. One of our radio talking heads (a former politician and co-author of the current state constitution) proposes that any elected official that doesn't vote be removed from office. He claimed that voting was "the bedrock upon which this country was founded."

Of course, like most politicians, this fellow either doesn't know his history, or he does know it and is simply lying. I'm not sure which - since both ignorance and mendacity seem to come natural for Louisiana politicians.

When the Republic was founded, only white male property owners over the age of 21 were permitted to vote. The founders even deprived the individual voter of electing the federal president, the federal judiciary, and federal senators! Some "bedrock."

Voting was originally seen as a privilege - and the word "democracy" was never used to describe the American political system. The founders understood that democracy is fickle, that universal suffrage would soon lead to chaos. Alexis DeTocqueville predicted a time when the electorate would figure out that they could simply vote themselves a share of the public treasury (known today as "the pork barrel") - and that prediction was greatly helped when suffrage became closer and closer to universal - and the electorate could vote on more and more things - such as federal senators (beginning in 1913).

As the Republic became more and more friendly to "democracy," voting shifted from being a privilege and began to be treated as a right. Over time, "democracy" became almost a religion with voting as its High Mass. Not to vote became akin to treason.

As our country becomes more and more authoritarian, voting is moving from being a privilege-turned-right into a compulsory duty.

If Baton Rouge makes voting mandatory for public officials, such legislation for ordinary citizens can't be far behind. There is an assumption that high voter turnout will guarantee better elected officials and better government - which makes no sense at all - especially when a large percentage of those voting can't tell you where their own states are on the map, or that the War Between the States came after the American Revolution. Do we really want people who are clueless about history and republican government to vote? Are we really better off when those who have no clue what the federal or state constitution says exercise their franchise?

Of course, the major political parties have a virtual stranglehold over the process, with money, marketing, and laws on their sides. The media christen the "front-runners" and participate in the manipulation of the largely-uninformed voters.

I am a citizen of the United States and of Louisiana. If there is an issue about which I believe a vote one way or the other will matter, or if there is a candidate that reflects my values, I will exercise my voting privilege. If the issue involved is not relevant, or if I don't have enough information to decide, or if there are no candidates that I support - I don't vote.

Although we Fort Wayne grads are often accused of seeing the sacraments everywhere, I don't see one behind the little curtain in the booth. Voting is not supernatural, magic, or sacred. Nor is it, in fact, a right.

But for the sake of argument, let's call voting a right. If it is a right to cast a ballot, it follows that there is also a right to refrain from voting. Otherwise, if it becomes mandatory - as it is in some tin-horn dictatorships - it is no longer a right, but a form of compulsion.

If Ray Nagin doesn't support any candidate on the ballot, I don't believe anyone should compel him to cast a ballot. It's none of my business if he votes or not. In fact, a "secret ballot" isn't very secret when anyone can check to see if you voted and how you are registered. But such compulsion (as our legislature is considering) is the natural next step in the evolution of polity. Our founders rejected democracy because democracy inevitably leads to tyranny and mob rule. Liberty inevitably suffers at the hands of mobs. This is how it is that we, like Imperial Rome, can convince ourselves that we are a free Republic - when in the name of democracy, we are moving toward a police state, governed by force and fear in the name of "freedom."

I am registered to vote in this election. I will be voting in the primary for federal president. Being a pastor who serves a congregation of Christians of every political stripe, I'm hesitant to publicly announce my choice for president. As much as I would love to put a sign in my yard and a sticker on my car - I won't be doing so.

Instead, I'm sipping a cup of tea on this date, and reflecting on how much my ancestors were willing to sacrifice to overthrow an out-of-control empire and replace it with a Republic.