Voter participation ensures vibrancy of republic

Bruce Elfant

Ben Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after casting his vote for the new U.S. Constitution in 1787 when a woman approached him to ask what type of government was established. “A Republic,” he replied. “If you can keep it.” 

Franklin and our other Founding Fathers understood that their work to form a nation governed by its people was just a beginning. They realized the ongoing work of forming a “more perfect union” and a secure nation that protected the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms in the Bill of Rights would rest solely on the active participation of everyday citizens in public affairs.

Imagine what our Founding Fathers would think of Texas, which today boasts one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation. 

As the Tuesday, Oct. 11 voter registration deadline approaches, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life asks an important question:

Why should citizens bother to register or vote?

The answer rests in whether we value a government that is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “Of the people, by the people and for the people,” or if we prefer a government process that doesn’t permit citizens to vote or have input.

The whole concept of the right to vote is to ensure that those elected accurately reflect the will of the people. When few people vote, the outcomes are distorted based on who bothered to vote and who did not.

In 2014, many state and local offices were on the ballot. Those elected are responsible for setting public policy on issues that concern many students, including tuition, where guns can legally be carried, availability of jobs, transportation, apartment regulations, health and mental health services.

A little more than 30 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 2014, and those that voted included only a small number of minorities and young people ages 18 to 24. That means decisions that impact you are primarily made by older, Anglo voters. Why do you give them that power?

When you don’t vote, we will never know how local- and state-elected officials may have made different decisions to respond to the will of your demographic. When you don’t vote, your voice is silent in the public arena.

Many citizens say they don’t vote because of all the money in campaigns, special
interests, redistricting and efforts to suppress voter turnout. Many of these laws do favor wealthy and special interests, but the answer can’t be to not vote. Special interests love low turnout elections because they are easier to manipulate. While special interests certainly have a larger megaphone than the rest of us, the great equalizer is that each citizen has one vote. Each vote has the same power no matter your age, color or socio-economic status. Higher voter turnouts will reduce special-interest influence on elections.

Many of you probably wish you could register to vote online. That would make registering easier, make the voter rolls more accurate and save taxpayer dollars. Online voter registration is up to our elected state legislature and can only be implemented if those we elect support it.

The United States spends billions in American blood and treasure to promote free and fair elections around the world, but we fail when it comes to setting the example of what it means to be citizens in a free society.

When the Iraqis and Afghans voted in their first elections after the U.S. invasion, 79 percent of Iraqis and 83 percent of Afghans turned out. They did not have the luxury of early voting, voters’ guides or neighborhood polling places. They dodged improvised explosive devices and bullets on their way to the polls. Despite the risk of death, they voted. The last time 79 percent of eligible Americans turned out to vote was 1896. 

Texans have to midnight, Tuesday, Oct. 11, to register to vote. Volunteer deputy registrars will be registering voters from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today and Monday along Speedway on campus and the West Mall, and also from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. along Speedway on Tuesday. Hook the Vote and other campus organizations will host a voter registration rally with food, activities and music from 6 p.m. to midnight at the Tower. Volunteers will also be at all Thundercloud Subs and Alamo Drafthouses from open until close on Tuesday. The Tax Office at 5501 Airport Blvd. will accept voter registration applications until midnight. Mailed voter applications must be postmarked by midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

President Teddy Roosevelt once said: “The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community.” 

I urge you and all Travis County residents to set the example to actively participate in the affairs of our government as was envisioned by Franklin and the other Founding Fathers.

Elfant is the Travis County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar. Follow his work on Twitter @TravisCountyTax.