Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 31, 2006

Voting: A right, privilege, duty, ‘civic sacrament’

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” ~ Activist Emma Goldman

On occasion, I’ve been called a cynic. When it comes to voting, however, my perspective is 180 degrees from Goldman’s disenchanted point of view. I believe voting is critical to democracy. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of voting.

Perhaps it’s because I remember my father serving as an election official when I was young.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a news junkie, and election night is the Super Bowl of news events.

Perhaps it’s because I attended fundamentalist Christian schools during the 1970s and early 1980s, when the religious right experienced a political awakening.

Although I don’t vote the way my teachers and pastors would prefer, they can take comfort that their civics lessons on the importance of voting stuck. I’ve drunk the “voting is crucial” Kool-Aid, but many of my fellow citizens refuse to take a sip.

Voter participation in the United States ranks near the bottom of the list internationally. In California, roughly 69 percent of residents who are eligible to vote are registered. About 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the June primary.

“Basically our government is elected by a small minority of citizens,” Mark Osterloh, an Arizona ophthalmologist pushing a controversial ballot measure, told the New York Times. Osterloh’s Arizona ballot measure proposes a $1 million lottery prize to be randomly awarded to a voter.

He’s right about the problem, but his fix is wrong.

“We need to rekindle the religion of civic duty, and that is a hard job,” Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate told the New York Times when asked about the Arizona voting lottery initiative.

That’s the right fix. It’s not only difficult, it’s a long-term task. These are the three most important steps in toward accomplishing it:

• Fix redistricting. Currently, the California legislature draws districts after each census. Legislators have an inherent self-interest in drawing districts that protect incumbents, and that’s exactly what they do. This system makes it extremely difficult for a challenger to defeat an incumbent, and that means many voters don’t bother to vote.

Californians had an opportunity to reform redistricting last year, with a proposition that would have had a panel of retired judges draw legislative districts in the state. But anger at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a successful campaign by those who are served by the status quo to paint the measure as imperfect doomed the initiative.

Just because redistricting reform failed once, we must not give up. We must reform the way districts for congress and the state legislature are drawn.

If voting is critical to democracy, then a fair redistricting system is critical to democracy.

• Secure the vote. Understandable doubts about whether or not votes are properly and fairly counted linger after the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

Those doubts are compounded by important questions about the security of electronic voting machines. It’s fair to ask if private companies using proprietary, unauditable software and hardware should be allowed to count our votes. Anyone who has suffered lost or corrupted data when a computer crashes is justified in wondering how reliable electronic voting systems really are.

My distrust of these systems is on reason I became a permanent absentee voter. If voters don’t trust that their votes are counted, why bother?

If voting is critical to democracy, then a trustworthy vote count critical to democracy.

• Make voting a matter of pride and accountability. Our national attitude about voting must dramatically change. We’re lucky to be able to choose our government. Voting is a privilege, paid for with the blood of countless soldiers and patriots since the birth of our country. The least we can do to repay their sacrifice is vote.

When voters are engaged in the political process, their representatives are much more accountable. Increasing voter participation links directly to reducing lobbyist influence and scandalous behavior by our representatives.

If voting is critical to democracy, then voters must appreciate the importance of civic participation.

These are just a few ideas. Many others, like direct election of the president, deserve serious consideration.

We need to treat voting as a precious right, privilege and duty. Democracy requires fair representative districts, trustworthy vote counts, and citizens who hold their elected officials accountable and honor the sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to vote.

In short, we need to remember the wise words of the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh: “Voting is a civic sacrament.”

Vote Nov. 7.



  1. Voting should be a privilage thats earned. If you havent earned it, you cant vote!

  2. That’s poppycock. Voting is a right that comes with citizenship. What more should be required? Poll taxes? Literacy tests? These atrocious practices are legacies of the past used to suppress minority votes, not something to be admired and repeated. Learn from history or be doomed to repeat it.

  3. […] in a democracy, in which voting is, as Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh said, “a civic sacrament.” Would you rather be associated with the party that works actively to encourage voting or the party […]

  4. […] long been passionate about the importance of voting. I’m thrilled to see Michiganders taking it […]

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