How I Learned to Love Voting

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, August 2021 

When I was a child, we talked politics at the dinner table, we read the newspapers over breakfast, and we devoured the comic strips. But not in that order.

Some of my earliest memories of my mother’s Cousin Bitsy was hearing her talk about serving as a precinct chairwoman in the late 1950’s St. Louis, Missouri. My mother was active in the League of Women Voters. We made paper airplanes out of the sample ballots that the League mailed to every household, but only after we took our pencils and filled in a few circles.

Voting was so grown up. When you voted, your opinions mattered. Even if your family didn't’t listen, you knew that once you were old enough to cast a ballot someone would listen to you. We practiced voting every election day. We were allowed inside the voting booth so long as we held either mom or dad’s hand and kept our voices to a whisper.

Ours was a typical mid 20th century middle class family, living in the center of the country. We were second and third generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, who did not talk much about the “old country”. We joked that were glad that our great grandfather and his flock did not miss the boat that carried them westwards.

So where did this love of voting come from?

No one in my family is alive from those earlier generations. I can’t ask anyone. So, let’s consider some possibilities.

When we vote, we experience one of the most fundamental obligations we have as citizens in a democracy. The tens of millions of people casting ballots during one U.S. election is a muscular expression of political will and power. The power to vote is t gifted to us, which implies that the power to vote could be easily withdrawn by some higher authority. The power to vote is not distributed selectively. The power to vote does not rest only with those who voted in the last election.

What does our Constitution say about who can vote? Well originally, those decisions were left up to the States. And it took the Civil War for us to realize that a few amendments to the Constitution were necessary. Now, when you read the 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments together, here’s who can vote: anyone over the age of 18 who is a citizen of the United States—and that includes “all persons born or naturalized in the United Sates, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” And just to be clear, the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” And to be really clear, nor can a citizen’s right to vote be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

So now my sharp eyed readers, did you catch how the operative word shifts once we look at our own original source – the U.S. Constitution? The Constitution does not talk about the power of voting, or the power of casting one’s ballot. The operative term is “right to vote.”

The right to vote rests in each of us. And that means that the ability to express our political opinions through the ballot box is more fundamental than a grant, or a gift, or a delegation of power.

So where does this right come from? The short and complete answer is that voting is one of the most basic expressions of natural law. Human beings—not just citizens—enjoy certain rights that are connected (some say tied at the hip) to being a human being. It’s part of the natural order of our universe. It’s who we are.

If we look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, there are certain rights that exist because we are part of this human family. Article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration says it with such clarity, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Wait a minute, says a skeptical reader. That’s a large leap from the US Constitution to philosophy! 

And in the minds of our Founding Fathers – and here I refer most specifically to Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, it was the thinking of a 17th Century English philosopher, John Locke, who provided the logical basis for creation of this new form of government. In John Locke’s way of thinking, governments derive their power solely from the consent of the governed—that is, their citizens. And the power of the government and the consent of the governed share a common purpose. We citizens vote—and thereby show our consent—to be governed by a government whose purpose it is to protect our inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Now, lest you conclude that Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States was thinking that a fundamental purpose of this new form of government was to promote hedonism, bar hopping, and sleeping in on the weekend – think again. By happiness, Mr. Jefferson emphasized that true happiness is the product of civic virtue and public duty.

So, voting is not really a manifestation of power. It’s a right connected to a virtue and a duty. That’s a head turner!

So, stay with me just a bit longer. The question before us is why we fall in love with voting. Why is voting so important to who we are and what we do? Why is voting part of the fabric of our own individual and collective identity? Why are our earliest memories about voting so vivid?

If we go back to our roots, this government of ours—this experiment that is only 232 years old—is more connected to rights, duties, obligations, virtues and values than it is connected to the exercise of the will of political parties, politicians, leaders, or those with privilege and power. The fundamentally new idea which our form of government articulates is that the authority of the government itself comes from one and only one source: the will of the people.

And that means you and me.

Let me close with a small collective memory of another of our nation’s Founding Fathers—Benjamin Franklin.

There is a story from 1787, just after the First Constitutional Convention adjourned. A curious citizen approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him what kind of government did the Founding Fathers create. He is said to have answered, “A Republic – if you can keep it.”

So, fall in love with voting. Let’s prove to Benjamin Franklin that we can keep it.