Voting: what would it take to make us pay attention, take part?

Many of us don't even bother to cast a ballot even under a mail-voting system. And we give candidates a pass on a lack of basic knowledge, like the fact that China has nuclear weapons.

Crosscut archive image.

Washington state ballot (2010).

Many of us don't even bother to cast a ballot even under a mail-voting system. And we give candidates a pass on a lack of basic knowledge, like the fact that China has nuclear weapons.

A political column for a political week: remember the claims that making voting easier via mail-in ballots would increase voter participation? Well, maybe not. At best half of the eligible voters took part in the election that ended Tuesday (Nov. 8). Statewide, 31 percent of the eligible state voters had returned their ballots in time to be counted Tuesday. In King Country that figure was about 26 percent. Overall, Secretary of State Sam Reed has predicted 47 percent turnout, and there is nothing so far to suggest that he will be much off the mark. This despite having ballots mailed to our homes.

Poet T. S. Eliot warned against the dream of solving our problems with “perfect systems."

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect
That no one will need to be good . . .

Maybe voter participation would be enhanced not by making voting as “convenient” as possible, but by making it inconvient if you don’t vote? Tell Americans to vote, or else? According to William Galston of the Brookings Institution, lots of democracies, 31 to be exact, do that through compulsory voting laws. Australia made that shift when voting was in the twenties, percentage wise. Now it's 95 percent.

Galston argues in a New York Times op-ed, “A democracy can’t be strong if its citizenship is weak. And right now American citizenship is attenuated — strong on rights, weak on responsibilties. There is less and less that being a citizens requires of us.”

Continuing on another aspect of the political theme before we get back to voter participation: Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, and author of a new book about JFK, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, was in town this week. Though a generation younger than his hero, Matthews, like Kennedy, is out of the Boston, Irish-Catholic political world.

Kennedy’s big break, according to Matthews, was being terribly sick as a kid (and having awful health all his life). Kennedy had all sorts of childhood illness and, in his teens, two months of hospitalization for possible life-threatening leukemia. As an adult, he suffered from Addison’s Disease and debilitating back problems, for which he had half a dozen injections for pain “every day, until the day he died.”

How is this a break? It meant Kennedy didn’t do sports as a kid. Instead, he was a reader. By age 14 he had read Churchill’s entire multi-volume account of World War I. Constant reading made Kennedy smart and informed and really an intellectual. As an aside, said Matthews, “Sports for kids is overrated.”

A onetime chief-of-staff for Speaker Tip O’Neill, Matthews became a journalist. He wrote the biography to try to get at what Kennedy was really like. “What kind of a guy was he?” Matthews found he was a "pal." He kept his friends. He loved having people around. He “started planning on Tuesday for who he and Jackie would have with them for the weekend.”

And when it came to the business of politics, Kennedy had plenty of allies and confederates. He had people who would answer when he called. He had people who would go to the mat for him.

By contrast, said Matthews, Obama is a “loner.” But “the presidency is not a job for a loner.” “Have you heard,” demanded Matthews, “even one Congressman go on the Sunday morning shows and say (of Obama), ‘He’s my guy, I’m with him'? No, you haven’t. You need people who will go on those shows, who will get out there and take a punch for you and throw a couple punches in return. Obama doesn’t have that.”

Acknowledging that Obama has real gifts and is “brilliant,” Matthews also said the president “doesn’t actually like politicians. He disdains them.” Matthews said, "That’s a problem because you’re not going to die [figuratively] for someone who doesn’t even like you.” He also said, “Obama is trying to do it by himself it doesn’t work that way.”

Of the current Republican field of presidential contenders, Matthews said, he's "never seen anything like it.” People reveling in their ignorance. Only two, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, he judged even "competent to be president," adding, "Go Mormons."

Moving on from Matthews but staying with politics: Despite his denials, Herman Cain is unlikely to survive the latest round of revelations of sexual harassment. It’s telling, however, what has hurt Cain and what has not.

No one seemed particularly alarmed that Cain was publicly worrying that China might get a nuclear weapon — this despite the common knowledge that China has had nuclear weapons for almost 50 years. No one seemed concerned that Cain appeared to have no clue what a “neo-conservative” was. We’re okay with ignorance, but a sex scandal? That we care about.

Galston’s argument for requiring voting is not only that citizenship isn’t only about rights but also about responsibilities. It’s that chronically low voter participation “pushes American politics toward increased polarization. Hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate” as much of the electorate dis-enfranchises itself. This makes for candidates good at “mobilizing their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues,” but not much else.

Another poet, Yeats, may have summed it up: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” If we want it to be different, perhaps we will need to develop some passionate intensity about something not at all glamorous — voting.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.