Voting: A right and responsibility of citizenship

In 2012, over 7,715,000 Ohioans were eligible to vote; of those, only 6,866,000 (or 89%) were actually registered to vote. Of those registered, only 16.7% (1,146,000) voted in the state primary, and only 36.2% (2,485,500) voted in the national election. In reality then, the congressional representatives of Ohio were elected by only slightly over 32% of the citizens of Ohio.

With the May 5 primary election we begin again a new election cycle for state, and eventually national legislatures and officials. The “right to vote” or “one person, one vote” concept is a founding principle of our nation – a system of government called democracy which our country originated and which has been fought and struggled for and emulated by many nations of the world. The idea that if each person is allowed to vote his or her own mind and self-interest, that common good for all will prevail lies at the heart of a functioning democracy; but if it is to work, every citizen must vote.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Voting rights were admittedly not equal and available to all when the United States was founded; at first, only white men who owned property could vote. Through great struggle (including imprisonment and death) women won the vote in 1918. We are more familiar with the long and bitter struggle for voting rights waged by African-Americans, and finally realized with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, just fifty years ago. Unfortunately, enabled by the Supreme Court ruling of 2013 dismantling much of the Voting Rights Act, we now see many states, including Ohio, creating rules and barriers to voting rights of their citizens.

In 2014, the state of Ohio passed a law requiring voters to have a driver’s license, military, state or federally-issued ID. House Bill 269 was signed by the governor, but later rescinded to allow voters (especially people of color, low-income, elderly and disabled) to present a utility bill or bank statement as identification. Still, such citizens can only cast “provisional” ballots. Ohio has a long history of not counting absentee or provisional ballots.

Currently, Senate Bill 63, a part of the 2016 Biennial Budget Transportation Bill, would require the Secretary of State to develop an online voter registration system. The system would require a state driver’s license or state ID, once again likely restricting people of color, low income or the elderly and disabled from registering to vote. [NOTE: the state of Oregon recently implemented a system that automatically registers every citizen to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s license.]

The 2016 Biennial Budget Transportation Bill includes an amendment which, if passed, will greatly restrict out-of-state students at Ohio’s colleges and universities from voting. It would require them to register their cars in Ohio and obtain an Ohio driver’s license within 30 days of arrival in order to vote locally using their campus address. This would cost each student approximately $75. If they failed to do so, their out-of-state licenses would become invalid and they would face misdemeanor charges. Clearly, this is another attempt to require a ‘poll tax’ (a fee to vote), which is specifically outlawed in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

OHIO’S VOTING RECORD

In 2012, over 7,715,000 Ohioans were eligible to vote; of those, only 6,866,000 (or 89%) were actually registered to vote. Of those registered, only 16.7% (1,146,000) voted in the state primary, and only 36.2% (2,485,500) voted in the national election. In reality then, the congressional representatives of Ohio were elected by only slightly over 32% of the citizens of Ohio. Sadly, many Americans have become cynical and distrustful of government and decry the dysfunction, rancor and budgetary priorities and waste of our current legislators, both federal and state. Perhaps it is no wonder – since only about 3 in 10 eligible voters in Ohio participated in their selection – and only about 54% of eligible voters nationally!

The U.S. Census Bureau asked registered nonvoters to state why they didn’t vote. The responses were:

13% said they did not vote for lack of interest
13% did not like the candidates or issues
Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters.
Of the 42% remaining, many had logistical problems with the voting process.

When there is a vacuum of citizenship, special interests take over. When ‘one dollar equals one vote’ rather than ‘one person, one vote’ – a situation brought again by the current Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2013 – the good for the majority succumbs to the wishes of the few.

The only antidote to our current governmental problem is to return to one of the founding principles of our democracy – an informed and participating electorate. As Episcopalians, we have inherited a tradition of active citizenship and governmental leadership; indeed, many of the ‘founding fathers’ were Anglicans! We in the Diocese of Southern Ohio can and must assume leadership again in our state and nation by voting ourselves, by encouraging others to do so and by resisting laws and policies that discourage and inhibit the voting rights of all.

We may never agree politically, but we can all be citizens of this great nation. We may not always like the election choices we have, but we cannot let the ‘perfect’ choice become the enemy of the ‘better’ choice. If you have not registered to vote, do it now! As a Christian and a citizen and an Episcopalian, it is your right and responsibility to vote.

Deniray Mueller serves as the legislative liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio and the convener of the Social Justice Network and Public Policy Commission. Contact her at deniray@deniray.com.

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