It's time to wake up from our slumbers

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

This summer, on a baseball field in Detroit, a federal jurist made a plea to a group of men and women of all nationalities who were about to become U.S. citizens, urging “each and everyone of you to register to vote as soon as possible” for the upcoming elections.

“Today all of you taking the oath of allegiance are becoming United States citizens, committed to our government, our system of laws and justice, and our democratic traditions and ideals,” U.S. District Judge David Lawson told those gathered for the naturalization ceremony June 29 at Comerica Park. “And so as citizens, you have both the privilege and the obligation to ensure that our leadership acts in the interest of all of us.

“And that means that you must take a hand in choosing our leaders, by voting in every election,” Lawson said. “Voting – by every American – is vital to the health of our democracy. For if you don’t vote, you will get the leaders you deserve.”

Election day is drawing closer, and however you view the presidential contest, there is one particularly interesting feature to this year’s polling: the 2016 electorate will be the most ethnically and racially diverse in U.S. history. The fact was particularly evident at Comerica Park that June day, where the soon-to-be U.S. citizens had begun their lives from various points around the globe, including China, Iraq, India, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines.

The Pew Research Center earlier this year published a report stating that nearly “one-in-three voters (31 percent) on Election Day will be Hispanic, black, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority.”

According to the Pew Center, “there are 10.7 million more eligible voters today than there were in 2012.” Some 7.5 million of those are Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and other minorities, the Pew Center noted.

Of the some 218 million people old enough to vote in the U.S., only about 146 million are registered, while approximately 126 million bothered to go to the polls in the November 2012 election, according to Pew Center figures. The numbers raise important questions about the nature of “government by the people.”

The supposed hero of the democratic system is the voter, commonly described as the ultimate source of all authority. The fact that tens of millions of Americans are so unresponsive to the system that they do not vote is the single most remarkable fact about it.

People apparently do not participate because they feel the system holds no benefits for them, or are generally apathetic about politics and political issues. Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that Americans are as a lot poorly informed. A recent survey showed that only 20 percent of the people polled could name the last three vice presidents of the United States, beginning with the current VP Joseph Biden. The results were even worse when the topics strayed to international personalities, a fact brought to light most recently by one of the presidential candidates.

Some scholars have argued with conviction that apathy is no real cause for concern, and that too much political participation may actually pose dangers to democracy. Granted that complete political participation cannot be achieved in any society, nor is it necessary in order for democracy to function. But for a political system to be democratic, the number of players in the game cannot be limited except by individual choice.

In America, public opinion can be a controlling force, especially at the state and local level. One of the primary responsibilities of citizenship is to exercise the rights protected by the Constitution, including that of free speech and dissent.

Activists who work for a cleaner environment, support tax reform, or oppose development near a historic site, make tangible contributions to society, whatever the merits of their cause. When individuals speak out at the polls, whether in support or dissent, they fulfill an obligation of citizenship, one that all too often is buried in passive indifference.

 

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