For the humor-impaired (and at this end of the election season, there are a lot of us, especially me), the title is a very old joke, actually based on the sad truth that the votees in days long past would do anything up to and including finding, registering and voting citizens then residing in the cemetery in order to win. Ahem. Of course that doesn’t happen these days. Never, ever, ever. (That being said with a straight face, which was hard, nothing really changes about human nature.)
But while this post is, as always, about human nature (I’m a human, or so I’m told, so everything I write is from that perspective), and while I promised not to write about politics (oh yeah, right), it is mostly about voting and about doing so, once only of course, on Election Day (or if you’re lucky enough to get a mail-in ballot, as soon as you get it).
So, we’ll be discussing two broad categories relating to voting. The first encompasses what voting is, how it came about and what it’s supposed to do. The second is why you should vote.
As usual, I’ll start, as a professor of mine once complained, from the egg. If history bores you, please go ahead and skip this part.
Human beings started out in very very very small groups. It is estimated by anthropologists that the first tribes of human beings back in Africa numbered from 40 to no more than 150 individuals each. They made their living nomadically, by hunting animals and gathering other foodstuffs; they had very few possessions but had rich languages and oral histories. In such a small group, true consensus was possible, especially considering that in these groups, the tribe was far more important than any individual in it.
As time passed, hunter-gatherer tribes gradually morphed into small and then larger migratory hunting and herding tribes or into sedentary agricultural tribes. Depending on the circumstances, the “big man” began to make his appearance. The big man would bargain with others in the tribe to work for him, tending his crops and herds, in exchange for protection from other tribes, the elements, and the demons or inimical gods. He got either a percentage of everything the others created or, more likely, most of it. I would imagine that the others entering into this bargain believed it to be a kind of insurance policy against the hazards of living. The original bargain would have been one on one with each tribesman. But as time went on, descendants lost the ability to survive on their own as work became more specialized. In addition, such descendants often would discover that great-great-great grandpa’s bargain with the big man involved their own loss of freedom of movement and that of their children, in apparent perpetuity. And so the big man, in consultation with his priests and generals and administrators, made all the decisions for the tribe. Until, of course, another big man came in with more troops and better gods and more or less mopped up Mesopotamia with the first big man as the mop. Allegiance by the tribespeople would be switched, forcibly, to the new big man. Hopefully, at least a few of them would survive the excitement.
None of this sounds very much like voting, and it isn’t. The original bargain would have been a business decision made between relative equals. After the decision was agreed upon, of course, one party would find that equality was indeed very relative and that somebody had pulled a fast one.
This evolving form of government led to kingship. Oddly enough, kingship often did use a kind of voting. For most of human history (in the Mediterranean basin at least–China, India and the Americas had different ways of developing their sophisticated civilizations), it was by no means a given that a son or daughter would succeed his or her father as king or chieftain or pharaoh or whatever. The generals, nobles, administrators, priests and other highs and mighties would have a say in who became the next king upon the defeat or incompetence or death of the current king. That is, a vote.
By the way, the term “queen” was a dynastic and companionate term, meaning primarily that the children of such a designated person were legitimate children of the monarch. Rulers were kings. Even if they were female. While it happened seldom, females did succeed to thrones. For the most part, sadly, after the hunter-gatherer period, most tribes and civilizations, while honoring the female principle more greatly than they would later, thought of women as dynastic necessities and, at best, personal companions. And didn’t I put that nicely.
Considering tribal chieftains becoming kings, in the Bible, there is the story of Saul and David. Saul was chosen by God to be king over Israel. Now, Saul, like any proper king at this time, had a harem, not just as a perquisite, but as a necessity of diplomacy and government. Obviously, he had sons and probably many more of them than were ever listed in the texts. But instead of any of those sons, the next king was David, also chosen by God, to rule over Israel and make of it an empire. Was this “voting?” If you assume that God had the biggest vote, yes, it was. The generals, administrators, and whatnot had to agree with God’s choice. Whether they voted with their feet (by this I mean either moving across a line in the dust to stand with or against David or what we mean now by that phrase of leaving town and not letting the gates hit them on the rumps as they did so) or with differently colored pieces of rock, or with force of arms, they voted and David became and stayed king. For the most part, in these situations, the vote took place once and was not called a “vote”. Moreover, after the procedure that ratified the kingship, those that voted against him probably did not fare so well.
(Eventually, in societies that voted in any sense at all, this realization of the consequences to those that voted against the winner led to the idea of the secret ballot, first usually done with black and white pieces of rock (we still use the term to “blackball” somebody), and later by voting booths and ballots with no names on them and so forth. We’re still struggling with this issue, by the way, especially as we get into a more and more electronic age. Those that win want to minimize the numbers of those that vote against them. Those that lose want to convert more voters and all those being voted upon think knowing who is doing what would be useful and convenient. But the original problem remains. The consequences of voting “wrong” can still be anything from mildly annoying (more political phone calls anyone?) to dire (no bridge for your town, sonny!).)
A little more history, and, if you’re lucky, a little less commentary.
One of the reasons that we honor Greece is that at least one of the city states that made up the country–the City of Athens–was one of the first known (or at least the first written about) civilizations that, for part of its history, has citizens that routinely voted on the issues of city government. While this was very nice, it didn’t last for long. Most of Athens’ history consisted of tyranny (which term simply meant that one person ran the place and thus didn’t have the negative connotation it does now–although some of the tyrants that ran the place helped give the word its current meaning). But yes, the first true democracy we know of (or that I know of, at any rate) took place in Athens. In this sense, “democracy” has a limited technical meaning of rule by everyone entitled to vote. Now, getting real, this didn’t mean every person who lived in Athens. Only citizens (those male Greek persons born or naturalized into the city–and usually only those that owned property) could vote and thus only citizens could have a voice in the running of the city-state. It wasn’t a very large number of people and the theory, or so we are told, is that all of them would gather in the agora (marketplace) and everything, absolutely everything, of concern to the government of Athens would be put to the vote of the citizens and the majority would rule. (I would imagine that simply for convenience’s sake they would first vote for a person who would run the meeting.) So, everything from when and if to attack Sparta again to upping that pesky tax on sandals would be literally voted on by all citizens at the meeting. Even with the few entitled to vote, it must have been quite cumbersome.
And, as happens so often in such cases, the citizens began to be not quite so noble, reverent, thrifty and brave as they had used to be. They started voting for higher taxes for non-citizens and for such things as hiring mercenaries to fight their wars for them. And so Athens’ experiment in democracy devolved (or evolved) into the citizens voting for a tyrant (see above) who would make many of these decisions for them, thus letting them actually get on with their symposia or supervising their crops and protecting them from their own tendencies to vote in ways that would be bad for Athens even if good for the citizens individually. And then, of course, the tyrant realized that the current state of emergency (there was always and there always will be a convenient current state of emergency) meant that a change of leadership would be dangerous for the community, so the voting process became, shall we say, redundant.
Rome is the next example in the civics textbooks. We are told that when Rome was young, before Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and Octavian and others like them, Rome was a republic. The term “republic” means that citizens (notice a theme here?) vote not directly, but through representatives (in Rome called Senators) to handle the reins of government. This turned out to be somewhat less cumbersome than direct democracy, but since one voted for a person who then might go to the Senate and vote only his own interests, not those of his constituents, it was slightly south of perfect. Obviously, however, in Rome as in various republics from that day to this (including our own because our form of government is, I believe, considered to be a representative democracy, which is basically what “republic” means), prospective or current Senators facing re-election would attempt to get the citizens to vote for them instead of their challengers, using all the forms (from bread and circuses to promises of more major goodies that may or may not be kept) of campaigning that we have used ever since.
But, and this is unfortunate, representative democracy has as much potential for corruption and self-interest as direct democracy (oh well, it has less opportunity for corruption than monarchy, tyranny or dictatorship). Representative democracy, just like direct democracy, has a tendency to devolve (or evolve) into something more “efficient”. In Rome’s case, this more efficient government came about almost without notice because the Senate grew weaker as the military grew stronger. Eventually, Julius Caesar, the general, was “elected” by the Senate as First Consul of Rome. I used quotes around the word “elected” because Caesar had all the armies and I would imagine he ordered their spears pointed directly at the Senate chamber. Please note that he was not elected Emperor and never actually called himself that. That came with his successor, Caesar Augustus, Octavian that was, one of the men who conspired at his assassination. In any event, the Senate remained to “advise and consent” (a position that they technically, according to the United States Constitution, still hold today in our country, among their other duties), but they lost the power to overturn or modify, except through persuasion, any of the Emperor’s dicta.
Isn’t this fun? So voting as such once again disappeared except as a kind of formality. And as Rome declined (it didn’t fall at once and people still considered themselves citizens of Rome and under its protection until nearly 800 ad), tribes once again made their appearance in government in Europe. Interestingly, for quite some time, in the Celtic and Germanic tribes that moved and settled all over Europe, a form of voting once again became a prominent part of government. A chieftain would be acclaimed (which is a kind of vote, if very public) by his warriors and would run both the civil and military government of the tribe until his death or incompetence. At that point, perhaps his son would be supported by a faction as the next chieftain, or perhaps it might be his daughter or nephew, or (and this was equally likely) it might be his greatest rival, or that rival’s son, nephew, brother or sister. Particularly in Celtic tribes, there seems to have been no huge distinction between men and women in terms of their ability to lead a warrior band or run a village, so a sister, niece, wife or daughter might have been chosen.
It would be arrogant and mistaken to assume that these tribes and consortiums of tribes were primitive, barbaric, savage. Well, okay, they were savage, but then again everybody was. Most of the tribes wandering around Europe as Rome declined kept in very close communication with Rome. Many of their nobles and upper classes, at least, spoke Latin. As Christianity spread, many of the tribes became Christian. Literacy, while not at the level it would have been in Rome during the first period of Rome’s empire, was not so completely lacking as we have been led to suppose. Much was lost, of course, and the dark ages were dark in many ways, partially because as Rome pulled back into its own peninsula, the Pax Romana disappeared and the roads were no longer safe. One was better off piling up rocks into a defensive formation soon to be called a castle and pull up the early equivalent of the drawbridge. And the warrior chieftains slowly became barons, or earls, and, sometimes, kings (although kings often had less actual power than their chief earls).
The form of government most often adopted during the period of the middle ages has been called feudalism, although it might be better to use the term vassalage (which may not be spelled correctly, I’ve primarily heard it used in lectures in my history courses). A “vassal” was somebody, usually a knight or above (meaning either a single horseman or a chieftain who had more than one horseman under his command) who owed fealty to a higher noble. “Fealty” means exactly the bargain struck by the big man in the earliest civilizations with his tribesmen — do ABC for me and I will do XYZ for you. Usually, this meant “fight forty days per year (the usual contract more honored in the breach than in the observance) for me and I will protect your lands from invasion and see to it that the roads are kept open so you can send your cattle to market.” How does voting matter in all of this? In many ways. For example, King John, whose barons rebelled because John was raping every part of the countryside of Merrie Olde England (I’ve been watching Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” wherein Russell Crowe truly kicks butt) for more and more revenue and destroying thereby the revenue sources of the barons themselves, could tell you. He was forced to sign Magna Carta, which became the basis of many of the principles that have subsequently been voted in to protect the rights of anybody who wasn’t a king. Let’s not get carried away and assume in ANY of these situations that anybody cared about the rights of those lowest in the hierarchy, by the way. As I said somewhere above, human nature has not changed. However, in any event, the barons definitely voted amongst themselves to rebel, to present the King with this document, and force him (because they had most of the knights at arms, the longbowmen, and what was left of the money) to sign it and like it. (By the way, he apparently repudiated his signature, but there it was, for all who could read it to see.)
After that, it was a see-saw kind of thing between the kings, who claimed the divine right to rule from Charlemagne and past him, directly from God, to the barons and later the bourgeoisie who kept on voting, sometimes with ballot boxes and sometimes with weapons, to limit the power of the ruler without actually eliminating said ruler. That is until, first in England, when Charles I left the throne in two pieces, head severed from his body, and second, for our purposes, the U.S., where we voted, first by our representatives to what we called Congress (the Continental Congress that declared war on England), and then by our militia, to get rid of King George III, at least his influence, and, most memorably (for Europe at least), in France where they got rid of an entire ruling dynasty which had pillaged the country for hundreds of years. Or least started with them. By the time the Terror had run its course, it’s amazing there was anybody left who could read and write. All starting with votes.
Now it sounds very nice, doesn’t it, because it means the people have spoken. Remember, above, where I talked about “citizens”? In all of these cases, nobody thought it was a good idea for everybody to have one vote and for votes to be counted, willy-nilly, and the winner takes all. My heavens, in that event, women could vote, horrors, and almost as bad, people who didn’t own property could vote, and you know they’d vote themselves all sorts of things that belong to the power structure, the landed gentry, the business owners, the people who count, who understand what’s what. Women could vote themselves things like personal human rights, even to the use of their own inherited or earned money. People who didn’t have property could vote that property be spread around a little better or at least that the property owners might have to pay more tax. In either event, what’s the country coming to?
More than that, during the French Revolution, which came closer than any other modern state to a true democracy, the choice of the electorate (and/or “mob”) was to lop off the heads of anybody above them in the food chain. This did not bode well. And the United States (and all of Europe) took the lesson.
So let’s concentrate on us, or the U.S. The vote, or suffrage as it is called, and I have no idea why, has always been a part of our way of government. Of course, those of us who were already here, that is, the Native Americans who got here first, had their own ways of governing themselves. And in any event, their choices didn’t count. (By the way, another theme that keeps cropping up is the one where the way I do things is civilized and proper and ordinary and the way you do things is savage and barbaric and must be stopped. We did that with the Native Americans and are still doing that with countries all over the world. Ooops. I sort of promised this wasn’t going to be political. I lied.) In New Hampshire to this day, the town meeting is the basic unit of government and actually IS, as far as anything can be these days, a true democracy in that all citizens of the town have a vote on all aspects of governance. As populations grew in the colonization of north America, true democracies did not flourish; they couldn’t, the meetings, discussions and yelling would simply get too difficult to organize. Representative democratic forms began to be used, and congresses, assemblies and parliaments to be elected, eventually coming to the notice of that big Parliament across the pond, in London, and to the notice of old King George, who didn’t like what he was hearing. We here in the U.S. fought a revolution (okay, only partially, there were a lot of other less high-flown and noble reasons) so that the big Parliament couldn’t tell us what to do.
One of the primary grievances was that little nuisance called “taxation without representation.” This is did not mean that we, meaning colonists (male and white and property owners, of course) in the Americas did not want to pay any taxes (well, of course they didn’t, but they recognized, more than some folk today, that government has a function and requires funds to operate and again I’m talking politics). No, they did not want to pay taxes while not having any say either in what taxes they were required to pay, the amount of tax, or what was done with the monies gathered by such means. The Tea Party of today perhaps has moved beyond the reason given very publicly by the original Tea Party that took place so long ago in Boston. That Tea Party was convened because the English Parliament raised a prohibitive tax on tea (which was always imported because it didn’t then and it doesn’t now grow in the continental United States) to fund its perpetual and ongoing war with France. Not only did this tax on tea unfairly target certain segments of the population except the poorest (who couldn’t afford tea anyway), nobody here in the colonies had any input whatsoever in creating the tax on tea or passing it or implementing it. Nor did the colonies like the growing idea that the colonies and only the colonies (which had no quarrel with that country) were going to be paying for the entire damned war England was fighting with France. The rebellion’s kindling point was that simple, although there was a lot of fuel for the blaze, things that had to do with other taxes, with tariffs, and with other governance that didn’t directly touch on taxation. But mostly, it was about not having any representatives in Parliament, which meant not getting to VOTE about whether to institute a tax and not getting to VOTE about how much the tax would be and not getting to VOTE about how tax revenues were to be spent.
So there. So we became a country, and the vote was enshrined, as they say, in the Constitution, with a lot of compromises and, believe me, I’m not even going to touch the Electoral College in this or any other essay. And it was still limited to white male property owners who were citizens. Period.
Over the next couple of hundred years, it took wars and riots and demonstrations and constitutional amendments to get the franchise (another way of saying the vote) to all citizens who had not been convicted of a felony. It was less than 100 years ago, no kidding, that women were finally enfranchised. Less than 100 years. Various laws and constitutional amendments have made it very clear (and very annoying to those who want the vote to go only to those people who are likely to vote for them) that one cannot require anything of a potential voter except citizenship, a clean police record (at the felony level) and an age limit (which is now set by law at eighteen). One does not have to be literate. One does not have to speak English. One does not have to own property. One does not have to declare a gender, a sexual preference, a political party (except for primary elections), anything except citizenship, freedom from present or prior incarceration, and age, to vote. This has been hard-fought and nearly lost many many times, not just in the history of the world but in the history of our country. It has been most recently on the block in what are called “battleground states” where public officials have passed laws restricting the franchise by requiring various kinds of “proof” that the potential voter is a citizen, such proof being an onerous and unfair burden on certain groups amazingly likely to vote for the other guy. The courts have mostly shot this down. But it is still possible for future elections.
And there we are.
So now, let’s talk about why it’s important to vote, apart from the constant bubbling up of the issue, its twisting to suit certain groups, even its suppression, apart, if anything can be said to be apart, from the basic rightness of all human beings living in this world having some kind of say in how they are governed and what sort of lives they will live.
First, it is one of the very few duties or responsibilities that the Constitution of the United States asks of its citizenry. Of course, it is not a requirement. One of the primary principles of the vote is that it is up to the individual citizen whether or not to exercise it. Other than obeying the laws of duly constituted governmental bodies, citizens of our country have it rather easy compared to those of many other nation states, especially since congress ended the draft a while ago. Nobody HAS to sign up to be in a militia, nobody HAS to take part in work gangs to build public monuments or repair roads. We are supposed to obey laws, stop at traffic lights, and, if we want to, vote. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Second, and even more important, read my not-too-well abbreviated and biased history, above. The vote is not granted from above. In fact, wherever people have had the vote, they have had to fight and work to keep it, because those they empowered by voting them into office had a brutal and constant tendency to turn themselves into kings or tyrants no longer subject to the vote. Voting is something that the people fight for and must keep fighting for or it is lost.
Third, if you don’t vote, you really don’t get to complain about the government that happens to you after that election day. I remember once long ago when Nixon was president, a little something called Watergate happened. There was a bumper sticker I almost put on my car (I don’t do bumper stickers any more than I do T-shirts with funny slogans on them) that stated “Don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern”. I did vote for McGovern (there were three of us, I think, his wife and his vice-presidential candidate being the other two and I’m not sure about the candidate). But those who don’t vote, well, they don’t get to say that the president or their congressman or their senator or their governor sucks. They had a chance to vote the bums out and didn’t take it.
And fourth, in answer to those who say that their vote won’t count, just one vote, so why bother, I read recently that in the last presidential election, in Colorado, the vote went to Obama by the narrowest possible margin in each county. Your vote does count. It could be the one vote that tips the balance. How do you know it won’t? I do know that if you don’t vote and are eligible to vote, you are one of the reasons why this country is in the shape it’s in. I’m not suggesting that we have the best of choices in front of us, from local magistrate up to President of the United States. We have the choices we have. But if we do not make them, if we do not vote, the quality of people who will run will continue to deteriorate and it will all get worse until it begins to seem almost reasonable to simply let a tyrant take over and run things, for “efficiency’s” sake. And historically, although it may take hundreds of years, that never seems to work out real well.
Vote! And by your vote let your elected representatives know what you want for this country. Oddly, even when I disagree with your views, I want you to exercise your vote. God knows, I could be wrong. (Sigh. It happens much more often than I like to admit.) And our country, the United States of America, which is based on the idea that the majority of people have the right, the privilege and even the reason to move the U.S. in the direction the majority believes to be best, will undoubtedly survive if I am wrong. I hope.
- Voting: Right or Privilege? (theatlantic.com)