Ignoring voting is a travesty of a choice

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In Pittsburgh and elsewhere across the country, today is Election Day. For the overwhelming majority of eligible voters, the fact that voting is a democracy's most sacred obligation means little or nothing.

For those who won't be voting today, this is just another Tuesday in a long succession of Tuesdays between birth and death. In Pittsburgh, less than 20 percent of registered voters are expected to turn out to vote for the new mayor or the other candidates lower on the ballot.

Even if you believe the outcome is a foregone conclusion and that Democrat Bill Peduto will be elected mayor over his absentee Republican opponent, why would that exempt any citizen from voting?

The relative strength or weakness of the candidates doesn't mean we have any less skin in the game as voters and taxpayers. The obligation to vote hasn't diminished. It remains in force whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Meanwhile, politicians aren't obligated to give us perpetually close races to pique our interest. The only responsibility of someone running for office is to stand for election on the basis of a record if they're an incumbent or on a plan for governance if they're a challenger.

We, the often bored and disinterested citizens of this 237-year-old republic, are supposed to bring attention to issues that, in turn, will compel our elected representatives to be responsive to us.

The recent government shutdown would not have been possible if Republicans believed for a second that voters other than the hard-core constituents of their gerrymandered districts would ever be in a position to hold them responsible.

These Constitution-quoting anarchists believe they are untouchable beyond a small circle of primary voters. If they can survive a primary challenge, they assume victory in the general election is assured. It is really up to voters incensed by their irresponsible conduct to disabuse them of this fantasy.

Somehow, we've forgotten that the social contract between citizens and representatives is a two-way street; our elected officials represent our interests only as long as we maintain some interest in what is done in our name. Otherwise, politicians are free to offer their office and their services to the highest bidder.

We don't live in a country that expects or demands military service in exchange for our liberties. We're free to take our democratic freedoms for granted.

Still, voting should be the minimal cost for citizenship in a country that enshrines the right to something as metaphysically nebulous as the pursuit of happiness. By constitutional right, anyone who is a marginally law-abiding citizen can buy enough guns legally to mount another revolution. Nothing is expected in exchange for this lethal prerogative.

As the first democracy descended from Enlightenment ideas, it isn't surprising that the landed gentry, scholars, farmers, teachers and freedom fighters who represented the first "We" in "We, the People" maintained an intense interest in representational government. Unfortunately, not much thought was given to inculcating a similar passion in their descendants.

As the franchise expanded to include disenfranchised blacks, women and poor whites, the once fervid passion for voting among them gave way to indifference. This would have shocked the original agitators for voting rights within those groups.

The first blacks to risk their lives to vote didn't have candidates who were friendly to their issues, but they were savvy enough to know that each election has consequences. They understood that the symbolic value of voting was necessary to break the assumption that they had no stake in democracy. One day, they knew their vote would be courted. Voting is both a long and short game.

For many, voting seems like that same mindless ritual they associate with religious worship. What could be a bigger waste of time than standing in a line with strangers for the privilege of experiencing confusion over a slate of names one doesn't recognize?

There's no denying that voting in the United States is an unnecessarily archaic process. It could be made easier by allowing online voting and the expansion of sites and days to more realistically accommodate our schedules while encouraging more civic participation.

We could also move elections from Tuesdays to the weekends to reduce conflict with busy work schedules. Last, but not least, we could finally get around to embracing the right that so many people fought and died for over the centuries. Anything less than 90 percent voter participation is an affront to their memory and the values by which we supposedly stand.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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