Art Callaham: Voting is both our right and our duty

April 15, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

I can’t help it; I have to comment on the recent primary election. No, this is not a statement about who won and who lost, although, in my opinion, there were a couple of scary names on the winner’s side of the results. Nor is this column a statement about how campaigns were conducted. Rather, it’s another column about our rights as Americans, how to protect those rights and how to participate in self government. 

Shame on us, our community, the City of Hagerstown, our county and our state; the voter turnout was, again, in my opinion, abysmal. Just doing a quick look at unofficial results it looks like approximately 28 percent of registered Washington County voters and 26 percent of city registered voters bothered to vote; statewide it doesn’t appear much better.  Shame on us! 

I will echo Jake Womer’s praise for the city changing the election cycle for city elected officials to coincide with the presidential election cycle. Yes, we did much better than in previous city elections where a whopping 11 to 20 percent of the registered voters turned out. However, in a free society where we as Americans are afforded the opportunity to choose the folks that govern our lives, these recent numbers are still shameful.

Oh silly me; I forgot, there are plenty of really good reasons not to vote. “I was out of town.” “I didn’t know it was Election Day.” “My work doesn’t allow me time off to vote.” “I was sick, tired or not feeling well.” “I didn’t know anyone who was running.”  “There were too many running.” “It’s just the same old crowd.” “My vote really doesn’t count,” or “my one vote doesn’t mean anything or won’t make a difference.” Or my very favorite, given to me this year: “I gave up voting for Lent.” The excuses for not voting go on and on and on. 

Absentee voting, early voting, extended voting hours, voter aides, elimination of the poll tax, no voting examination or tests, touch screen voting machines, large print voting screens, increased voting locations, handicap accessibility to voting places, motor/voter registration — all of these innovations and changes to voting procedures render all excuses for not voting moot.

If you are alive, and want to vote, in Maryland, you can and it is generally very easy. (I suspect that in some states you don’t even have to be alive.)  So, the real reason, not the excuse for not voting, boils down to the fact that many don’t want to vote. To me that is sad commentary.

I have written in this column many times that in my opinion the greatest right that we as Americans have is the right to vote for those people who represent us and govern our lives. But is your right to vote cemented in the Constitution?  The Constitution contains many phrases, clauses and amendments detailing ways people cannot be denied the right to vote. However, the Constitution does not expressly guarantee Americans the right to vote. 

For instance, you cannot deny the right to vote because of race or gender. Citizens of Washington, D.C., can vote for president; 18-year-olds can vote; you can vote even if you fail to pay a poll tax. Note that in all of this the Constitution never explicitly assures the right to vote, as it does the right to free speech, for example. 

Aside from these requirements concerning who can vote, the specific qualifications for voters are generally left to the states. As long as a state’s qualifications do not conflict with anything in the Constitution, only the state may withhold the right to vote.

For example, in Texas, persons declared mentally incompetent and felons currently in prison or on probation are denied the right to vote. The 26th Amendment requires that 18-year-olds must be able to vote, yet states can allow persons younger than 18 to vote.

Although I’m not a constitutional lawyer, I contend that my right to vote is equally assured to me along with my right to free speech, religion, bearing arms, unlawful search and seizure, et. al., outlined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. 

I cannot fathom the possibility of a government, national, state or local, denying a qualified American the right to vote.  Hell could not contain the fury!

So vote (just like the “Cook County, Illinois Democrat Machine” used to recommend — early and often)! Seriously, participate in government; choose who makes the laws and decisions that affect you.  You do that when you vote.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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