Exercising free speech through the ballot box


By Jason Stverak

By Monday evening, millions of Americanswill have already cast a ballot in this year’s midterm elections, for a voter turnout rate expected to be in the low-to-mid-40s.

If this were a presidential election year, we might see that number climb as high as 60 percent.

Despite the attention to convenience and accessibility in the United States, our nation has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world. Ranked by average voter turnout rates since 1945, 120 countries outstrip us.

Vote-by-mail states post turnout rates that are somewhat higher than the rest of the country, but not terribly impressive. A study last year by the Pew Research Center suggests that voter turnout is lower in states that offer ever-more-popular early voting.

What does it say about us that making voting more convenient and more accessible doesn’t correlate to a rise in turnout rates? And what does it say that dozens of nations we would consider less devoted to to our scared American principles of freedom and democracy than we are also enjoy higher rates of voter participation?

HE GAVE ALL: Union Army Maj. Sullivan Ballou died in the first battle of Bull Run.

The two questions are fundamentally related. In 1861, Maj. Sullivan Ballou, who had recently volunteered to fight for the Union and was camped with his regiment near Washington, D.C., wrote in a letter to his wife, “I know … how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life to maintain this government and to pay that debt.”

It would be Ballou’s last letter. A week later, he repaid that debt when a d cannon shell fell on him at the first Battle of Bull Run.

Today, we pay a lot of lip service to the sacrifices like Ballou’s, but collectively, we’re a long way from laying down all our joys of everyday life to participate in the democracy we fight so hard to protect.

We’re unwilling to venture out into a rainy day – voter turnout rates dip even lower on election days plagued by bad weather. We’re unwilling to disrupt our schedules even slightly — as a trend for early voting that hasn’t translated to higher participation records would indicate. We’re even unwilling to find a pen, seal an envelope and walk back to the mailbox, as indicated by unimpressive ballot return rates in vote-by-mail states.

We know hundreds of thousands of brave men and women have died during the past 250 years s to preserve our republic. We know that people in many places of the world have yet to achieve the same liberties — that in some places people still risk their lives to enter a polling booth and cast a ballot.

For all that we claim to value our voting rights, we demand ever more concessions to make their exercise easier — and still don’t turn out to vote.

Voting isn’t just about holding our elected officials accountable or pushing a preferred candidate over the top. It’s an opportunity to get civically engaged, spend time researching the issues and thoughtfully making choices on the direction our country. This Election Day, let’s pay more than lip service to sacrifices like Sullivan Ballou’s.

Jason Stverak is the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity